Alternative to Jail for Veterans in Trouble With the Law

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The Sacramento Veterans Treatment Court has operated for just a year and half, but prosecutors, the public defender's office and the criminal courts are encouraged at the lives being changed by the program.

The Veterans Treatment Court allows veterans charged with crimes that stem from post traumatic stress syndrome, traumatic brain injury, excessive drug use or sexual abuse as a result of military service to forgo jail time and get treatment instead.

A key portion of the program relies on combat veterans who mentor participants through the maze of court ordered treatments, many provided by Veterans Affairs. Many of the mentors are Vietnam veterans who have some credibility among the people they are mentoring.

"When they understand, 'oh, you've been through some of the same things,' then it's easier to accept some of the words of wisdom we might have," said Russ Croco, an Air Force vet who served in Vietnam.

Army veteran Doug Mitten still suffers from PTSD. It took him 14 years to kick drug and alcohol dependency after he left the service in 1970.

He says he recently felt drug use urges and went to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting with the Iraq War veteran he was mentoring.

"It's good to work with him because it helps me as much as it's helping him," said Mitten.

Deputy District Attorney Chris Carlson, who heads the program for his office, says volunteers are the backbone of the program. And lessons were learned from Vietnam-era vets.

"We criminalized the Vietnam veterans ... they didn't have any of these programs, we just threw them in prison or jail, and we don't want to do that with the post 9-11 veterans," Carlson said.

Veterans who commit violent crimes like murder or rape are not eligible for the program. If they are accepted, they often undertake a rigorous series of counseling and therapy sessions with the help of their mentors.

Veterans Treatment Court judge David Abbott is sold on the program, which is less than two years old.

"We treat veterans a little differently than others in the criminal justice system because veterans deserve different treatment," Abbott said.

He said many of the crimes combat veterans commit would not occur but for their military service, and that the rearrest rate is far lower among people in the similar programs than for the general population.

Carlson says the district attorney and the public defender's office are always looking for volunteer mentors that can aid the program.

Those who are interested can call Carlson and the D.A.'s office at (916) 874-5958. Ryan Raftery can also be contacted at the Public Defenders office at (916) 874-5578.