As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on more and more troops are returning with disabilities and trauma-inflicted injuries, especially PTSD and TBI. The erratic, sometimes violent and frightening behavior associated with these disabilities often finds veterans and active-duty military involved with civilian courts, and frequently burrowing deeper and deeper into the justice system and incarceration because of their disabilities. Of course the same thing happens to citizens who may suffer TBI as a result of a car accident, PTSD as a result of some horrifying experience such as witnessing a murder, or they may simply be disabled in some other manner.
The Equal Justice Foundation has been working for years to find better ways to deal with these problems, especially in cooperation with District Attorney John Newsome of Colorado's 4 th Judicial District, which encompasses one of America's largest concentrations of military forces.
In early July 2008 we learned of a veterans court established in Buffalo, New York, by Judge Robert Russell and proposed that idea to District Attorney John Newsome. Newsome carried that idea to the Chief Judge, and everyone to date has been receptive to the idea. We are now slowly overcoming the barriers to implementation.
The following is a progress report on the efforts the Equal Justice Foundation has been making to protect disabled veterans, active-duty military, and citizens who come before the courts as a result of trauma and disabilities. The immediate objective is to set up a pilot program in Colorado Springs early in 2009, and we recently learned Denver is proceeding with a similar program.
Surrounded by the Air Force Academy, Schriever Air Force Base, Peterson Air Force Base, the Army's Fort Carson, and Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Base, Colorado Springs is one of America's largest military bastions. These bases contain some of the most basic commands and functions in the nation's military, e.g., Northern Command (NORTHCOM), North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), Space Command (SPACECOM), and many others. For example, all GPS satellites are controlled out of Schriever AFB and they maintain a secondary time standard for NIST's WWV.
With the large military presence there is the normal friction between law enforcement agencies and military personnel who come into the city for rest and recreation. For the most part that is handled professionally and courteously by police and deputies, helped in large measure by the fact that most police officers here are veterans themselves.
In the late 1990's, overzealous prosecution of the 1994 domestic violence (DV) laws by then District Attorney Jeanie Smith, whose prosecutors were rarely veterans, led to gross distortions in the number of DV criminal cases and domestic abuse civil restraining orders issued here. When demographic data became available in 1998 it was clear that the 4th Judicial District, which includes Colorado Springs, led the state by a wide margin in the per capita numbers of DV cases. Even today the 4th Judicial District (Colorado Springs) has two to three times the number of DV cases as comparable judicial districts in Colorado.
As the Lautenberg Amendment makes it impossible for any military or civilian personnel convicted of misdemeanor DV, or who is subject to a domestic abuse restraining order, to be in possession of a gun or ammunition, the military has had little choice but to discharge these men and women, who often lose retirement, medical, and other veteran's benefits in the process. They also lose any high-level security clearances and base access as well, often a crippling factor in seeking employment of any kind here. As a result the EJF has been pointing out for years that the military bases around Colorado Springs are losing approximately 1,000 highly- and expensively-trained troops a year to superfluous or false charges of domestic violence or unsubstantiated and bogus restraining orders. The number of civilian employees, often key workers at the military bases, is at least as large.
In an October 2004 EJF newsletter we reported what we were being told by military men and women, and their spouses, as we visited the various bases here. At Fort Carson every platoon size unit we talk with has one or more troops or officers who have been involved in a DV incident. And one battalion commander told me the district attorney was filing these charges primarily to build up her statistics. Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and engineers from across the country were also coming to the EJF with stories of how the DV laws were being used as a modern variant on a "honey trap," as we reported in a July 2005 newsletter, to take key personnel out.
Because of the huge volume of DV cases, and in conformance with ideology that suggested "batterers" should be placed in treatment immediately, the then 4 th JD district attorney initiated the notorious Fast Track court. In this court for DV "perpetrators" (guilt is assumed) prosecutors demand the accused accept a plea bargain without opportunity to consult or being allowed to see a defense attorney, frequently before an advisement by a judge of the charges against them, and coerced by being told that if they plead not guilty they will be held in jail until trial. Troops who have gone through these nightmares have also told us they were afraid of being AWOL if they didn't take the plea bargain and were held in jail. Of course defendants, scared and often sleepless after a night in jail, had no idea of the life- and family-destroying consequences of accepting the plea bargain and prosecutors provided as little information as possible.
The election in 2004 of a reform district attorney, John Newsome, began a correction in the way DV criminal cases were handled. Newsome was also quite willing to work with, and accept suggestions from groups like the Equal Justice Foundation and many letters, emails, meetings, and conversations transpired after his election.
As reported in a July 2008 EJF newsletter clear evidence of reform in criminal domestic violence cases emerges after 2004 in a decline both the total number of DV court cases and a sharp decline in the percentage of plea bargains in DV cases from 60% in 2000 to just 27% in 2007. And in our experience if a defendant pleads not guilty and demands a jury trial on a DV charge the odds of their being convicted is virtually zero if they have a competent defense attorney.
However, it should also be noted that the local DV industry didn't take these reforms lying down and the number of domestic abuse restraining orders increased from 1,733 in 2002 to 2,315 in 2007, a 34% increase. And civil restraining orders are much easier to obtain than a criminal conviction and don't involve the district attorney at all. Under the Lautenberg Amendment, a domestic abuse restraining order has the same impact on military personnel as a DV conviction. Thus, the impact of the district attorney's reforms were nullified and military personnel and veterans are still being destroyed at the same rate as before.
In fact the situation has grown worse as more and more of our active-duty military and veterans have served multiple combat tours in Iraq or Afghanistan. At any given time on Fort Carson alone there are now approximately 10,000 troops who have served two or more combat tours and estimates suggest 30% of these troops suffer from moderate to severe post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and roughly 20% of them have traumatic brain injuries (TBI).
Unfortunately, the erratic and sometimes violent and frightening behavior of victims of PTSD and TBI often lead wives and girlfriends to call police for help. Under current mandatory arrest laws civilian police are left with little choice but to make an arrest. But as pointed out in a December 2008 EJF newsletter PTSD and TBI are not domestic violence although they are treated the same under current DV laws.
The idea for a special court for veterans originated with Judge Robert Russell in Buffalo, New York, who recognized that veteran's disabilities were leading them ever deeper into the justice system and that these men and women were often being incarcerated unjustly. In January 2008 Judge Russell and his staff began a docket to deal with the many veterans he found appearing before him. And those of us who are often extremely critical of judges and the judicial system should keep in mind that there are judges like Robert Russell.
When I became aware of this idea I emailed District Attorney John Newsome on July 10, 2008, and suggested the 4 th Judicial District consider setting up a similar court to deal with the thousands of cases here. Newsome liked the idea and took it to Chief Judge Samelson, who also liked the idea. The 4 th JD is lucky in that many of our judges are also veterans, and District Judge Ronald Crowder, who is a retired Army National Guard Major General, agreed to take on the project.
While that was proceeding, EJF Director Robert Alvarez, who currently works for the Army Wounded Warrior program as well as with the Warrior in Transition unit at Fort Carson, and I were working with District Attorney Newsome on a case-by-case basis to seek justice for veterans and active-duty military personnel.
In one case a combat medic (medics and corpsmen often suffer the worst from PTSD because of what they've seen), with two-tours in Iraq and three rows of ribbons, was facing six-months in the county jail as the result of a bar fight. With the DA's personal intervention, and the support of his command, we were able to ask the judge for a sentence of six-months supervised base restriction with extra duty in the base hospital emergency room and a year unsupervised probation.
In another case Alvarez got the DA to review and reverse a veteran's conviction. But the sheer number of cases overwhelms the ability of a couple volunteers to do more than a few of these cases. And all EJF efforts are by unpaid volunteers. Also we often only become aware of these individuals after they have entered a plea bargain under Fast Track.
Seeking a systemic approach Alvarez and I began developing an outline for a pilot program for a military and veterans court in Colorado's 4 th Judicial District attempting to define what agencies and what personnel would need to be involved.
We also started discussing the idea with the Veterans Administration. On August 12, 2008, Alvarez and I met with Rich De Blasio, network homeless coordinator for the Veterans Administration at the VA Hospital in Denver, Colorado, to discuss the idea of a veterans court. De Blasio was very much in favor of the idea and had already attended a VA conference in Washington, D.C. discussing Judge Russell's implementation in Buffalo, NY, of such a court. Thus, he promised what support he could provide through the Veterans Administration.
As our program outline developed it became clear that a full-time, paid coordinator for the program would be an essential component. On September 3 rd Alvarez and I then met with CmdSgtMajor (USA-retired) Terrance McWilliams, who is currently Director of Military Support for the El Pomar Foundation, to discuss possible financial support. And on September 4 th Alvarez and I attended a session of the local drug court to see how they were working with substance abuse cases. Very commonly sufferers of PTSD and TBI self-medicate with alcohol or other drugs and it is known that many of the veterans and military cases involve substance abuse.
Following that meeting, Alvarez, McWilliams, and I met with Judge Crowder and his assistant to discuss the resources and personnel required to implement a pilot program in the 4 th JD. Judge Crowder brought up the issue of equal justice for all if we limited the court to veterans and military and eventually the name became "trauma court." However, the emphasis in the pilot program is to remain with veterans and active-duty military as it is expected that those will be the great majority of the cases in Colorado Springs.
Unfortunately, during this process DA John Newsome lost his bid for reelection in an August primary. On September 25 th I had a chance to speak with District Attorney-elect Dan May and partially brief him on the concept and our efforts to implement this special court. He expressed tentative agreement with the concept contingent on budgetary constraints. On October 27 th I had an opportunity to introduce CmdSgtMajor McWilliams to Dan May and have them discuss the proposal for a trauma court, with May again expressing agreement with the concept. However, financial support was still a major issue.
In early November Judge Crowder mentioned to Alvarez that the Colorado Dept. of Human Services had received a $2 million dollar grant from the federal Dept. of Health and Human Services to establish a diversion program to divert veterans from the justice system and provide treatment in lieu of incarceration. Through his contacts at Fort Carson, Colorado Dept. of Labor, treatment providers, and others, Alvarez got the word out of a program and planning meeting with the state and federal managers regarding this grant at Fort Logan in Denver on November 12, 2008. As a result a large contingent of supporters for the concept from Colorado Springs were able to attend this meeting, including Alvarez and I from the EJF, representatives for the Fort Carson commanding general and emergency services, Judge Crowder, and a number of others. These representatives quickly made it apparent that the problems with military and veterans was much greater in Colorado Springs than in Denver. Also, it was very clear that the needs for services in Colorado Springs were very different than Denver's.
A follow up meeting of this working committee was held on December 2 nd at the Colorado Dept. of Labor and Employment. EJF Vice President Sheryle Hutter also attended that meeting with Alvarez and I. In 2008 Mrs. Hutter received two statewide awards for her work with the disability community so a trauma court is very much in her interest. It was also fortunate Hutter could attend as the working committee then split into to separate groups for Denver with Mrs. Hutter on that committee and Colorado Springs with Alvarez and I on that. Also, after separating into two working groups, Alvarez was elected chair of the Colorado Springs working group. So the Equal Justice Foundation is well represented on both subcommittees.
The basic objective, and measure of success, for the federal grant is to divert veterans and military personnel out of the civilian justice system into treatment programs and avoid the downward spiral into incarceration that so many disabled veterans find themselves in. And treatment is much less expensive, and more effective than incarceration.
A basic difference between our conceptual model and program outline and Denver's ideas is that we do not initially envision involvement of frontline officers. With very limited resources we see no way to effectively implement an outreach plan in our rather large and diverse county (2,000 square miles) with many independent police agencies and multiple military bases. Also, particularly with active-duty military personnel, there is a great reluctance to admit they have a problem with PTSD, or TBI, and they simply self-medicate with alcohol or other drugs. As a result the first time many, if not most of the troops and veterans admit they have a serious problem is when they end up at the El Paso County Criminal Justice Center (CJC) under the control of the county sheriff. As handcuffs, an orange jump suit, and a jail bed tend to be a serious wake up call for most people, we have proposed, at least for a pilot program, that the intercept point for trauma court candidates be the CJC, where all the independent agencies currently bring prisoners.
I had talked fairly extensively with Sheriff Maketa about the concept of a veterans court and sent him our draft outline with the proposal for using CJC as the intercept point but we had many questions about how Fort Carson and the other military bases interacted with the CJC.
Following the December 2 nd meeting in Denver I set up a meeting with emergency services personnel on Fort Carson, where most of the active-duty military cases are expected. That meeting was extremely productive in answering questions about transport of prisoners between CJC and the bases; finding that Fort Carson uses CJC for all military confinements rather than supporting a military prison on base so that there is already a very good working relationship and communications between Fort Carson police agencies and CJC; and many other questions we had, e.g., whether troops were counted as AWOL while in CJC. We were also able to work out some tentative arrangements for implementing the pilot program. Alvarez also brought to their attention the fact that often times trooper's pay was being stopped as soon as they were arrested as they were presumed guilty and they are looking into that problem.
Alvarez then put together an organizational meeting of the Colorado Springs half of the DHS diversion grant on December 15 th . As many new people attended this first meeting in Colorado Springs, most of the meeting was devoted to introductions, finding out people's interests in the program, and bringing everyone up to date on what has been done so far.
The next meeting of the Colorado Springs trauma court pilot program committee will be on January 12, 2009, at the CO Dept. of Employment and Labor at 2306 E. Pikes Peak Ave. from 10 to 12 AM. Alvarez and I worked on a more extensive flow chart on December 26, 2008, and hope to have that available to all interested parties by the first week in January.