A SYMPATHETIC EAR

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<p>Judge William "Bill" Kephart in Las Vegas Justice Court was appointed on a rotation basis to currently handle veterans cases. Not a veteran, Kephart said he has had training programs with the local Department of Veterans Affairs and was able to "revamp" the program for his court.</p>
<p>Judge Mark Stevens initiated the Veterans Treatment Court program in Henderson. The program assists military veterans with misdemeanor crimes while struggling to readjust to civilian life.</p>
<p>Steve Sanson, president of Veterans In Politics, speaks before the Clark County Commission in October. The veterans advocate said Clark County officials generally ignored a law until 2011 to establish veterans courts in Southern Nevada, two years after similar courts were established up north.</p>
<p>Judge Linda Marie Bell, center, hugs Glenn Porter, a graduate of veterans court, a specialty District Court program, Friday, Nov. 1 at the Regional Justice Center. The first year of veterans court in Clark County has seen 65 veterans graduate from the program, with an additional 40 currently enrolled.</p>
Shell Shocked Soldier

It’s generally known - and correct - that when Vietnam veterans came home from the war, they were shunned, ostracized and vilified. And common lore also has it that if individuals weren’t heroes, they were villains, criminals, drug addicts and hippies whose brains were tarnished by the war, which is not correct.

Most soldiers who served in Vietnam did not see combat. The majority served in other than enemy-infested areas. That’s not to say that some of them were not affected by the jungle environment. For those who wanted it, the Vietnamese populace offered cheap alcohol, drugs and sex. And while actual combat was not present for many soldiers, there was always the threat of sudden attacks on servicemen in restaurants, bars and hooches, which could bring on paranoia and anguish. They witnessed bodies being sent to the States on a daily basis. The stifling tropical air and near-constant monsoon rains often made them stir crazy, and longing for home, which they called “the World” as in “When I get back to the World.”

And for some of them, when the returned to the world, their lives took a wrong road. They have been joined by their younger brethren from Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom suffer from similar psychological problems. A recent editorial in the Los Angeles Times asked the question, “What’s prison for, anyway?” Is it to punish, change or remove individuals from society? Not every nonviolent offender can be rehabilitated. But those who can - especially those who have honorably served America - should not be denied a specialized opportunity.

In recent years, court systems around the country have recognized that veterans who find themselves in legal trouble can and should be tried in courts that recognize that their troubles may have been caused by the experiences they had while serving their country. In Southern Nevada, several judges have established veterans courts expressly for that purpose.

But it’s not a “get out of jail free” program. Two of the judges agreed to talk with CityLife. (Two other judges did not respond to interview requests.)

Judge William Kephart in Las Vegas Justice Court was appointed on a rotation basis to currently handle veterans cases. (Judge Melanie Tobiason handled veterans cases in that court prior to Kephart.) Not a veteran, Kephart said he has had training programs with the local Department of Veterans Affairs and was able to “revamp” the program for his court. He said the VA has recognized that several states have stepped up and taken notice of the positive efforts Nevada, Maryland, Iowa and California have developed.

“We have individuals who have kind of lost their way and have acquired criminal behavior, and they happen to be veterans,” he said.

In a pilot program, the judge said the VA supplies a few clinical psychologists and administrators to assist with his veterans court. “The VA has a stepped up for the purposes of addressing issues,” he noted. And there are three programmers supplied from Clark County who also deal specifically with his court to help with the program.

“We needed to really understand the needs and drawbacks to veterans in Las Vegas to give them an opportunity,” Kephart said. “I used to be a district attorney, and I felt I could really address that well. My brother, dad, grandfather, were all in the armed forces. I was brought up under the tutaledge of veterans, so I have a big affinity for veterans. I accepted this opportunity and I want to make it a good program.”

Steve Sanson, who heads the local Veterans In Politics, said that veterans courts were established in 2009 in Washoe County and Incline County. But it took until 2011 for Clark County to get off the ground with its own such courts. Sanson said that Gov. Jim Gibbons had signed the State Assembly and Senate bills that established veterans courts in Nevada. But until inquiries were made, he said Clark County generally ignored the law, although some judges did begin to step up and make things happen.

Author Brad O’Leary, while not specifically addressing veterans courts in his 2009 book Shut Up, America!, nonetheless wrote that politicians can maintain power by assuring that their opinions or points of view are the only ones citizens ever hear. By controlling content, citizens can be controlled. So while the law authorizing Nevada veterans courts was passed, and was in fact a matter of public record, “Nobody pushed it. That’s why it took so long,” Sanson said. He said it was constant questioning and bringing it to the forefront that led several local courts to finally begin hearing veterans cases with more tolerant viewpoints. He said there are several other examples of politicians not promoting laws that can help veterans, one in particular being recently failed Assembly Bill 271.

“The bill would have brought Nevada law into compliance with federal law and ensure veterans’ rights are followed by state courts,” Sanson said. The bill addressed U.S. Code Title 38, Section 5301(a) that makes veterans disability benefits immune from taxation, claims of creditors, attachment, levy and seizure. The law excludes disability compensation from net disposable income. Yet in Nevada, Sanson said some divorce lawyers are demanding that judges ignore federal law and award such income for alimony.

“In many cases, this leaves the veteran in dire financial circumstances, some penniless and homeless,” Sanson said.

Judge Mark Stevens heads Henderson’s Veterans Treatment Court, an alternative program for veterans charged with misdemeanor crimes while struggling to readjust to civilian life. A Henderson spokesperson pointed out that many such veterans “wrestle with substance abuse and mental illness that appear to be related to military service.” The veterans court focuses on those underlying issues and provides access to resources that enable successful compliance with the courts orders. Stevens was apparently ahead of the curve that Sanson said was largely ignored.

“In 2008 Buffalo, New York, had the very first veterans court,” Stevens said. “We tried to model our court after them.” Stevens traveled to New York, met the judge there, and studied the Buffalo model. He also traveled to Los Angeles to review its veterans court.

Stevens said defendants in his program must prove themselves. “It’s at least a year-long process, and we have a couple of people who go a couple of years.” Since the first class in May of 2011, he has seen 34 individuals graduate from the program. “Unfortunately, I (currently) have my first active recidivism. It was disappointing. (But) one out of 34 isn’t too bad.”

Stevens, a Marine Corps veteran, said that “No bond is as strong as the one that exists among those who have fought for their country. Having a fellow veteran to talk to and get their support and guidance helps our defendants successfully complete the program.”

Stevens served in the Marines at Camp Pendleton as a JAG lawyer, and company commander. His command consisted of “a combination of lawyers, judges, and I also had Marines from disbursing, postal employees and computer folks.” After the service and while working in Henderson, he said a public defender happened to stop by his office one day and casually suggested that “I think we should start a veterans treatment court.” Stevens responded, “That sounds like a great idea. Two days later we had court, our first couple of veterans.” And he found the mayor and city council and police department to be very supportive. “We now have a different public defender. He’s a veteran as well” and is also supportive of the program.

Stevens holds Veterans Court each Thursday at 2 p.m. Some defendants come weekly as they progress through the system. Some come once every five weeks, depending how well they do in the program. “Initially we hold them a little closer, and if they appear to be on the right track we give them more time in between.”

Stevens noted the individuals range “From a brigadier general to the lowest ranking, Vietnam to the current wars.” There has also been a Korean War veteran. How long defendants stay in the program is based upon what their issues are. “A lot have PTSD, traumatic brain injuries. Some have addiction issues related to their service. It depends on what their needs are.”

Two outreach coordinators from the VA attend court with computers to track progress. “We have a meeting one hour before court to discuss individuals as to how their treatment is progressing.” Some veterans go through random drug and alcohol testing. “Sometimes we try to get them into US VETS to get them housing. It’s a broad based approach. These are all misdeamenors. It’s far more intensive if they just decided to accept punishment and go from there. It’s voluntary to be in the program.” The veterans are often referred from other courts “and we decide whether they’re qualified for our program.” Some veterans decline, and would rather go through the regular court system. “They have to want it. If they want to turn their life around this is their opportunity.” Stevens said the veterans must sign a waiver of confidentiality in order for the court to have access to medical records and other information to see how they are progressing. Other organizations such as Westcare send representatives, and provide beds and services as needed. “It’s a team effort,” Stevens said.

Part of the team includes mentors, which Stevens says is critical for the program. “We have 18 right now. Veterans are assigned to help.” Some mentors may just need a few phone calls each week. Others require help with writing their resumes. “Whatever their needs are, we guide [defendants] in the right direction.” Mentors must undergo background checks, and attend occasional training sessions. “They are a guide, role model, a friend. One veteran lost his bicycle that he used to get to work. His mentor put a notice on his blog, and a day and a half later the veteran had a new bike. Some mentors might meet them outside, might have lunch or something. Some are retired people, police officers, retired veterans who what to give back. Veterans might not feel comfortable talking to me, but they can talk with mentors.” Stevens said there is no requirement or specific background a mentor needs, but he or she has to be someone who “cares enough. We try to match mentors up with someone who cares, and who is appropriate.” That means women mentor women, enlisted men with enlisted men, and Marines with Marines. It just seems to work better that way.” In addition, some defendants require limited financial help for such things as transportation, bus passes, phone calls and related costs in order to complete the program and attend all the required court dates, counseling and testing. Mentors can help with donations, and the non-profit Henderson Community Foundation obtains funds through donations which in turn are given to the court for such expenses.

Veterans courts mainly stay with individuals who are charged with misdemeanors. A bill in the Assembly was recently defeated that would have officially opened the courts to veterans charged with violent crimes. Sevens said that even now it’s still possible for such defendants to go through veterans courts, but the prosecutors have to agree it would be appropriate. Another part of the “team effort” requires that victims be on board. “We don’t allow anyone in the program if the victim of the crime doesn’t want them into the program,” Stevens said. “It tends to be domestic battery cases, like a push, and the prosecutor thinks its a good idea based on the circumstances. We’ve had a number, but it’s a situation where PTSD was reacted to. Even if it’s a DUI, if someone is hurt in an accident, all have to agree. The bottom line is that the victim has rights … the victim needs to be on board if records are sealed and cases dismissed. That’s what the statute states. There are many where the victim objects.”

Kepthart said that in order to qualify for the program, veterans have to meet certain criteria. “They have to show they suffer from a dependcy, PTSD or issues that result from their military service. If and only if a non-violent offense. If violent, the DA has to agree to allow them in. The VA evaluates them to determine the extent of their dependency,” which must be the result of their military service. “The VA tells us what their concerns are, and we model that in conjunction with what is going on with the criminal case. The DA and court may have additional concerns.” Kephart said “The VA sends us periodical reports on how defendants are doing.” Kephart said that successful cases are required to be dismissed and records sealed, so victims must be involved. “We deal with the DA, if he wants to present the victim. If the DA or the victim wants to hear us, the court is always helpful. Sometimes victims are related, a spouse, a relative. I question the victim.” If all are in agreement, a defendant graduates and the case dismissed.

“We have a mentorship program. A lot are current police officers, veterans and retired military.” Kephart said he works to motivate defendants for social reasons.”I want them to go to their [veterans] posts, get them back socially. That’s what my mentorship is for. The police department has really stepped up. I have close to 160 mentors, from Metro, Nevada Highway Patrol, DEA, a couple of federal guys, a couple of Henderson police. We also have non-law people, anyone who is willing to do this. I have maybe 50 non-law.”

Kephart has graduated two from his program, “but I have about 60-plus in the program, and we’re going to expand it.” The court currently meets once a month on the first Friday at 9 a.m., but he said the program will soon expand to twice a month. The public is welcome to visit and observe.

Interestingly, not all eligible veterans want to be a part of the program. Kephart said “We had some where they took a different type of deal, moved to District Court. Some have dropped out. Some we have lost, they’ve taken off. A couple transfered to other VA programs. One was in Reno and he dropped off the radar.”

So, “What is prison for?” Incarceration aside, Kephart said his veterans program is designed to help society.

“I am of the opinion that the individual who has been successful in the military and (who strayed) because of something as a result of the military, I believe that those individuals have just lost their way,” Kephart said. “It takes society to step up and help them. We don’t try to handle them with kid gloves. They are grown men and grown women.

“But often they need a little more push and more structure. They respond well to it. I don’t think we’re trying to say they deserve something better. We’re saying they need something different. And it helps us and the veterans. I would say it’s one of the most powerful pieces of legislation I’ve seen in my career.”

CHUCK N. BAKER writes extensively about veterans issues. He is a veteran of the Vietnam War and a recipient of the Purple Heart. He can be heard Thursdays on KLAV-AM, from 8-9 p.m. on “The Veterans Reporter Radio Show.”