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A judge hears a homeless veteran's case at a makeshift Denver city and county court, Denver, Colorado, 2011.
No matter whom you talk to, U.S. prisons are described as overcrowded and penitentiary systems are overtaxed. Enter the collaborative court system, a series of court programs around the country aimed at keeping certain types of prisoners from entering the prison population to begin with.
You may have heard the phrase "drug courts," but special courts for military veterans are also on the upswing, especially in states like California, which has a penal code that explicitly allows for veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or similar problems to earn "credit" for time spent in court-ordered treatment programs.
For many, veterans' courts are a welcome combination of sentencing and treatment, requiring that veterans arrested for particular crimes make reparations by attending court sessions every one to three weeks for a period of 18 months, as well as following a specific treatment path.
A much praised example of these courts is part of the California Superior Court in Orange County, where Judge Wendy Lindley presides. Their clients are provided with peer mentors, counseling and other services, all of which is said to keep recidivism down, although the stats aren't officially in yet.
Reception has generally been positive, but when the type of crimes that veterans' courts handle moves from misdemeanor to felony, some are not comfortable with non-active military personnel being separated out from our larger judicial system. In some cases, advocates are even asking for so-called "diversion programs" that would allow peer mentors to be sent directly to the point of arrest. We talk to Judge Lindley and others who have pioneered this legal alternative to standard criminal prosecution for veterans who have committed crimes.
Do these courts help keep veterans out of a system that doesn’t help them or create a system where former soldiers aren’t expected to answer to anyone other than their peers? Or are veterans’ courts actually too narrow, only allowing military personnel with mental health diagnoses like PTSD into their fold?
Judge Wendy Lindley, California Superior Court judge in Orange County; presides over Veterans Court
Paul Freese, director of litigation and advocacy for Public Counsel, the public interest law office of the Los Angeles County and Beverly Hills Bar Associations and the largest provider of pro bono legal services in the United States
Also check out KPCC's continuing coverage on Veterans issues in honor of Veterans Day 2011.