Veterans Court puts its focus on helping those in trouble

September 15, 2011 

Thurston County was the first county in the state to create a Veterans Court. It was among the first dozen such courts in the entire nation.

After two years of intense supervision, the first two graduates – Floyd Purdy and Randy Burcham – have successfully completed the program, and with the community, celebrated their graduation.

Presiding Thurston County District Court Judge Brett Buckley said he couldn’t be more pleased. And neither could we.

As Buckley said, “Government sometimes gets maligned for getting in the way or creating hurdles or for its bureaucracy. But government deserves credit for thinking creatively and finding solutions, too.”

We agree. And Veterans Court – a division of the county’s Mental Health Court – is a terrific advancement that’s paying big dividends in reformed lives.

The annual budget for the two courts is $289,000 and the source of funds is the county’s one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax approved by county commissioners to deal with mounting mental health issues in South Sound.

Veterans Court is modeled after the highly successful Drug Court. The therapeutic court models are based on a practice of collaborative justice, as opposed to adversarial justice.

In a traditional court setting, the prosecutor is aggressive in his or her pursuit of criminal charges against a defendant, whose court-appointed or retained attorney does his or her best to reduce or eliminate the charge or ease the punishment.

In the Veterans Court model, as with Drug Court, everyone in the courtroom is working together – as a team – committed to helping the defendant.

In Veterans Court the prosecutor, defense counsel, judge, treatment providers, social workers, veteran administrator and representative from the state Department of Veterans Affairs, work collaboratively to ensure that the defendant is held accountable, gets the help he or she needs and turns their life around. If the defendant graduates from the program, which usually includes counseling, substance abuse treatment and maintaining a job, the prosecutor will dismiss the original charges at the graduation ceremony.

Judge Buckley looks at graduates Purdy and Burcham and says, “I have a great degree of confidence they’ll be successful in restarting their lives in the community.” The chance that they will be back in the criminal justice system is “greatly reduced” for the first two Veterans Court graduates, the judge said.

In this case, both criminal defendants had mental health treatment for issues directly related to their service in the armed forces. Floyd, a veteran of the Iraq War and Burcham, a veteran of the Vietnam War, also went through domestic violence counseling. They struggled the first year of treatment, were held accountable by the court, and blossomed in the second and final year of the program.

Buckley said he has had his eyes opened by the experience. For example, the Veterans Court was founded on the belief that military men and women returning to Joint Base Lewis-McChord from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan after multiple deployments would need mental health and other treatment when they entered the local criminal justice system.

What has surprised Buckley is the fact that “It’s not just new guys and women, it’s veterans from previous wars and conflicts. Their conditions went totally undiagnosed all these years and they’ve been dealing with these ghosts since they returned from these past conflicts.”

One of the 16 veterans enrolled in the court is a former advertising salesman for the Los Angeles Times. He was a Korean War veteran and is on track to be the third graduate of Veterans Court, Judge Buckley said.

What has inspired the judge is the motivation of many of the veterans – and the six or seven who are on the waiting list to get into the program.

“If you came into court (on Wednesday) and sat through a session, you would say, ‘There is no way these people are criminals.’ They don’t seem the type,” Judge Buckley said. “They carry over that motivation and discipline they had in the military.

“We have one guy whose license is suspended so he rides his bicycle from Lakewood to the courthouse and back,” the judge continued. “He’s been doing that for a number of months, not just during the nice weather. To me, that’s a pretty motivated guy.”

What Judge Buckley has come to understand is that for most Veterans Court participants, the stress they picked up in conflict is triggering actions, sometimes years later. “That really validates the reason we have this approach to collaborative justice,” he said.

The real rewards, of course, are reunited families and restored lives of graduates who are happy, productive members of society.

There is no question that Thurston County’s pioneering efforts on the Veterans Court is reaping big rewards.

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