New court offers a second chance and a clean slate for veterans

Judge Jeffrey Singer during court proceedings at the first Veterans Treatment Court in Kingman. (RYAN ABELLA/Miner)

Judge Jeffrey Singer during court proceedings at the first Veterans Treatment Court in Kingman. (RYAN ABELLA/Miner)

The man stood in front of Judge Jeffrey Singer, perfectly at attention and straight as a rifle barrel, his military bearing evident after a recent tour in the U.S. Army.

He was there as one of the first to participate in the Kingman Division of the newly created Mohave County Regional Veterans Treatment Court. Singer, who replaced longtime Kingman Municipal Court Judge Kathy McCoy last summer, sincerely thanked the man for his service to the nation and then explained to him just what would be expected as he entered the program.

Meeting those expectations will be demanding.

Veterans Court is designed to help veterans who face misdemeanor charges due to any number of issues veterans deal with, from homelessness to alcohol dependency and other forms of substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder or simply finding difficulty returning to civilian life. The man who stood before Singer on Wednesday afternoon was charged with disorderly conduct. The man before, also an Army veteran, a DUI.

Much will be asked of them in the coming months, far more than they would have to endure simply by pleading guilty to the charges and paying a fine and spending a few days in the Mohave County jail.

"The carrot at the end of the stick is, the charges will be dismissed if they graduate," said Singer. "But they get much more than that out of the deal. I can't believe the resources we have for them."

How we got here

While most of Mohave County's more than 26,000 veterans never wind up in front of a judge in the criminal arena, there are those who can't stay out of trouble. More than 200 veterans' courts have been established in the U.S. since the first in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008.

Lake Havasu City Consolidated Court, which includes defendants charged in municipal (city) and justice (county) courts, has one. Last April, Mitch Kalauli, judge of the Lake Havasu Court, told the Kingman City Council how the program works and the success it has experienced in the two short years since he and Lake Havasu City Mayor Mark Nexsen started the special court.

Mayor Richard Anderson and City Manager John Dougherty invited Kalauli to address the Council after sitting in on a court session.

The Council in turn approved the court, and Singer was enthusiastic about the plan when he took the bench in June.

Veterans' courts work

The statistics are irrefutable. Defendants who go through the traditional court system are likely to reoffend. Those who participate in treatment courts, such as for veterans, persons with drug or alcohol addictions and even mental illness, fare much better. Veterans' court is the most successful of all.

When Kalauli addressed to the Council, for example, he said the recidivism rate for traditional court is a staggering 70 to 85 percent. The figures drop significantly for drug and DUI courts, with recidivism rates between 30 and 50 percent.

The rate for veterans' court? Ten percent.

The reason, according to Singer, is the sheer number of volunteers who are involved with the program and are passionate about helping a veteran.

As of last spring, only one of the more than 40 veterans in the Lake Havasu court had reoffended. While volunteers might be willing to help, the onus is on veterans to buy into the program and take care of business. They have their work cut out for them.

That there is a need is irrefutable. More than 900,000 veterans suffer with PTSD. One in 10 inmates in U.S. prisons and jails is a veteran. Nearly 50,000 veterans are homeless on any given night.

Phases and stages

The minimum stay in veterans' court is six months and could last 18 months. It all depends on how well the participant does in the program.

Phase 1 lasts between one and three months. On Wednesday, Singer ordered the first two participants to meet with no fewer than five people that afternoon. They sign a contract, will go through a counseling assessment, and submit to between three and five random drug tests per month.

Their case is assessed, their family needs are assessed, as is their medical status and any need for prescription medication. A treatment plan is established.

They must attend two court sessions per month. A mentor will be assigned and they must do all of this, and remain substance-free for 30 consecutive days, in order to move on to Phase 2, when the same routine begins anew, but it's a little less intensive. Phase 2 could last between three months and a year and is by far the longest stretch. The final phase is much less invasive as participants are given their graduation date. They must complete counseling and volunteers must ensure the participant is connected to agencies that will continue to help him after he or she graduates. Once that happens, the participant can volunteer to become a mentor and participate in court outings, which Singer said could be something such as a hike in the mountains.

The view from the bench

"I'm just excited to get started," said Singer, who credited the City Council for having the foresight to start the court and Nexsen and Kalauli in Lake Havasu City for the "tremendous" help and support.

In fact, the two cities have merged the program. Court meetings will be held simultaneously and video-conferenced so volunteers in the program can avoid duplicating their efforts, not to mention saving time and money traveling between the two communities.

While roughly 26,000 veterans live in Mohave County, less than 3,500 live within the Kingman City limits. Lake Havasu is home to more than 7,800 veterans. More than 5,700 live in Bullhead City and the remaining 9,000 or so live in unincorporated areas of Mohave County.

A veteran doesn't have to live in the city to participate, but he or she does have to be charged with a misdemeanor - those facing felony charges are automatically disqualified.

Singer said it is possible veterans charged with misdemeanors in Kingman Justice Court might someday be involved in veterans' court, but no discussions have been held.

"It's the logical conclusion," he said. "I mean, the whole idea is to help our veterans."

The benefit to veterans

The carrot might be that the charge is dismissed once the participant graduates, but there is a virtual garden's worth of other benefits.

"We have so many agencies here to help," said Singer. They include national, state and county agencies, the VFW, American Legion and other veterans groups, and the Jerry Ambrose Veterans Council. City nonprofit organizations, such as Cornerstone Mission, can assist government agencies with emergency housing until something more permanent is found. There are resources available for medical and mental health care.

"We have all of these resources for veterans, and many of them (veterans) don't even know they exist," said Singer. "I think we are very lucky in Mohave County. I was surprised to see how many people and agencies are here for veterans."

So what about struggling veterans who aren't in legal hot water?

"First, I'd tell them to go commit a crime," said Singer, tongue firmly in cheek. "That's a joke. Seriously, this is very important and I want this made clear: If they come to us, and they want to be involved in court because they want their needs addressed, we can refer them to agencies. We have a slew of agencies."

The most valuable benefit, however, is how the court changes veterans. Singer sat in on a lot of court sessions in Lake Havasu City and the impact had a lasting effect.

"You see the guys that are ready to graduate. They stand straighter. They speak a little louder, a little prouder. It's so different than the ones who are just starting. It's beautiful."

Veterans also get back something they probably miss most of all about life in the military, and that's the camaraderie. There is even cross-branch competition.

"When an Army vet does well, you'll hear other Army vets say 'Hooah' in the court," said Singer. "If it's Navy, you'll hear, 'Anchors aweigh.' 'Aim high' for the Air Force. It's really neat."

Reporter Ryan Abella contributed to this report.