Editor's Note: This article was originally published on 2010-06-10 on an older version of KUNC.org.
Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started in 2001 and 2003, thousands of active military and veterans have committed misdemeanor and felony crimes in Colorado Springs, which is just north of the Fort Carson Army Base.
"What we commonly see is someone who is suffering from Traumatic Brain Injury or Post Traumatic Stress [Disorder] will self medicate and then get themselves into a lot of trouble," says 4th Judicial District Court Judge Ronald Crowder, who presides over a new court for veterans in Colorado Springs.
Since its formal opening in February, Crowder's court has carried a caseload of about 25 veterans, most of whom have committed nonviolent felonies.
Here's how the court works: The El Paso County District Attorney works as a gatekeeper, deciding which cases and crimes are eligible. He's looking for veterans who have a probable link between their service overseas and criminal behavior. If they agree to go through the court, they have stricter probation terms, and they're required to make monthly court appearances. In return, they get things like a lesser charge or a deferred sentence.
Treating the "Nexus of Criminal Behavior"
Sheilagh McAteer works as a public defender for many of the veterans in the specialty court.
"I think that you truly can show that the combat experience is the nexus of the criminal behavior," she says. "It almost goes hand in hand with a lot of these soldiers."
McAteer says there's not enough local data and that it's just too early to tell if the court is lowering recidivism rates. The country's oldest vet court in Buffalo, New York, has been around for two years and just over 20 have completed the program. But these courts do work in keeping tabs on veterans many with addiction and psychological issues which means they get help before they fall into a downward spiral.
"I think our soldier who fell off the wagon last week is a perfect example," she says.
That person started using methamphetamine to self medicate, and then got into a serious car accident.
"...and so he had meth in his system, he had meth in the car, he had been on a binge. Instead of him sitting in the El Paso County Jail, three days later we have him in a locked residential facility and today he's being transported into a VA hospital in Sheridan, Wyoming into the acute care unit," she says.
Many see the potential to grow the court to handle less serious misdemeanor crimes, intervening before felonies happen. About 1,500 are expected to go through Judge Crowder's court in the coming five years.
Expanding the Court
Taking that next step requires more funding. Marsha Looper is the Republican state representative for House District 19, which covers a third of El Paso County. She says so far the Colorado Springs court has been operating on a shoestring budget.
This past session she successfully sponsored legislation that makes it easier for her community and others to get money and expand the court system.
"...and this is a first for Colorado in terms of getting any statutes about a specialty court," she says.
But behind the scenes it takes a small army to operate the Colorado Springs program including a full-time program manager who works with counselors, the judge, the DA, public defenders and peer mentors. Looper says the 2011 budget for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is expected to set aside money to fund treatment courts--she wants a piece of it.
"If we are appropriating hundreds of millions of dollars of aid to other countries we should be able to set aside at least $5 million for the state of Colorado for our service members," she says.
The reality is that most cities outside of Colorado Springs don't have a large enough veteran population to support this kind of court. Judge Ronald Crowder says he and others are developing a list of best practices from the Colorado Springs model. He hopes it can be used by other specialty courts in the state.
"Any district that has a drug court can look at trying to expand to accommodate these kinds of cases," he says.
Crowder says he'll be happy to share that information with any community that wants it-- including the city of Denver, which is expected to launch its pilot veteran's court later this year.