Orange County introduces special court for veterans

Orange County's "community courts" have been around for years. They focus on single issues, drugs or homelessness, with the aim of directing offenders toward the right track instead of jail. Now Orange County is the first in the state to locate those "community courts" under one roof. KPCC's Susan Valot says it's opened a new one, too: Veterans Court. It's the first of its kind in California.

Susan Valot: Colorful mission-style tile work greets the vets at the county's new Community Court in Santa Ana. There's a 1950-era mural with reds and yellows, and a hardwood-looking floor. Community Court Judge Wendy Lindley says she wanted the court to be warm and welcoming.

Judge Wendy Lindley: As we go down the hall here, we have some art by clients and graduates.

Valot: Judge Lindley's the champion of this project. It's the first community court in California to bring dozens of agencies under one roof. The first office houses public defender paralegals that provide free help.

Lindley: Right next door is the Health Care Agency and local law enforcement, and they're either on site here or we can call them in.

Valot: Across the way is the Veterans Administration office. Santa Ana Police Officer Randy Beckx works with the city's homeless population. He says a "one-stop shop" with all of the services under one roof makes it easier for people to get the help they need.

Randy Beckx: We have everything right here in hand to begin services immediately. If the individual's a veteran, I can walk him into this office – we happen to be standing in the Veterans Administration office – they can get help at the veterans level. Next door to my office is social services. They can address any issues related to housing, benefits, food stamps.

Valot: Down the hall, there's a doctor, a nurse, even a foundation that helps people secure dental care. There's job training help, too. Officer Beckx says it's a far cry from trying to secure services over the phone and sending people all over town to get them.

Beckx: The clients that we've dealt with already have been overwhelmed. One man started to cry because there were so many people here ready to help this individual with his different issues, including homelessness, alcoholism, substance abuse. He was just overwhelmed.

Valot: And at the end of the hall, through the double-wooden doors, is Judge Lindley's courtroom. Every Tuesday, it becomes Veterans Court.

Lindley: Veterans Court is needed because veterans are suffering from a very unique set of problems that are caused directly by their service on behalf of this country. We're focusing on combat veterans.

Valot: Lindley says Veterans Court takes a wider variety of cases then traditional homeless court or drug court. Typically those courts shy away from more violent cases.

Lindley: But with the Veterans Court, because of the unique issues of veterans and because of the fact that our veterans are used to, you know, shooting when it's something bad happens and they're very much on guard. They also suffer from PTSD and traumatic brain injury. They have these unique situations.

Valot: Judge Lindley says a lot of vets back from Iraq and Afghanistan won't admit – or sometimes don't know – they have post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury.

They end up depressed. They turn to drinking or drugs. Some lose their jobs – and end up on the street. Lindley says with Veterans Court, they get treatment and help rather than jail. Plus...

Lindley: We're doing our outreach program to prevent them from ever being arrested and ever entering through the courtroom doors. We want them to stay out there, get the help that they need without ever having to spend the money to file the cases, and issue the warrants, and house them in jail.

Valot: And that help comes in the form of a "one-stop shop" called Community Court. California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George says it's beneficial to everybody.

Chief Justice Ronald George: It's a very constructive approach and a long-term view of getting out of the cycle of people coming back for minor offenses and personal problems – whether they're drug induced or mental health induced – and trying to take care of them in sort of a global way so that they don't come back and they become useful members of society.

Valot: And Justice George predicts the concept of a "one-stop shop" community court won't stop in Orange County. He predicts it'll be replicated all over California.