Veterans Treatment Court keeps focus on healing rather than incarceration

15th District Court is fourth court in state to host such

a program for vets

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

Until recently, Marvin Olsen was a fixture on the streets of Ann Arbor, as he pushed his shopping cart full of possessions from one stopping point to the next.

Last fall, when he was charged with a non-violent crime, the Vietnam veteran was admitted to the new Washtenaw County Veterans Treatment Court.

Today Olsen, who was homeless for 12 years, is in treatment, staying sober and living in his own apartment with a view of Michigan Stadium that's quite comforting to the diehard Michigan fan.

His story is one of about 20 proving the early success of the Veterans Treatment Court started last fall by Washtenaw County District Court Judge Chris Easthope and an active support team.

Prior to the veterans court, these vets would end up in the criminal justice system without acknowledgement of what happened in their past.

"They volunteered their service to their country," said Easthope. "The approach we take is that you go away to serve, and something about your service changed your behavior. We believe that deserves special attention. We also understand that post-Vietnam, there was a high incarceration rate of returning Vietnam veterans, and we want to avoid that."

Team member Michael Smith, director of the Washtenaw County Veterans Affairs, applauds the Veterans Court's approach to treating the veterans' medical conditions instead of treating them as criminals.

"The focus is on rehabilitation, and bringing these service members who've honorably served our country back into society being the contributing members of society they've always wanted to be," said Smith, who helps the veterans receive benefits they sometimes didn't know they had earned. "With veterans, we are typically dealing with people who have disabilities stemming from their military service, such as post traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and other medical conditions affecting their behavior. And that behavior leads them into contact with the public safety and justice system."

Instead of going through District Court, the participants are put on 18 months probation, during which they must complete an individualized treatment plan for medical support, housing, employment, and family matters. Coming soon is a program in which veterans will serve as mentors to the participants.

Every other Wednesday, the team talks about the cases on the day's docket, and then move up to Easthope's courtroom, as participants on the docket step up one by one to talk about their progress.

The court began in the fall of 2012, and so far, 22 veterans have been admitted.

The veterans are referred to the court by other probation departments in the county, as well as law enforcement officers, social workers, and others.

Ann Arbor attorney Nader Nassif, who offers the veterans defense services when necessary, said that one of his favorite success stories is an older female Navy veteran who had a first-time offense of a OWI. In the process of helping her get admitted to Veterans Court, Nassif learned that the drunk driving was a suicide attempt, that she had left treatment.

Easthope said the court learned that she had suffered sexual trauma during her military service, which led to PTSD, which led to mental health issues and severe substance abuse. After her husband died, she hit rock bottom.

The court got her into counseling, stabilized housing, and A.A., and she's been sober for about six months.

Nassif said the court has literally been a lifesaver.

"Without it, I think she'd be dead," he said.

Nassif said that thanks to Veterans Court, another veteran now has an additional entitlement income of $1,200 each month, which is enough to keep him from writing the bad check that got him into trouble in the first place.

"This court shows them there are people out there who actually care," Nassif said, "and that we thank them for their service."

At a recent session of the Veterans Treatment Court, Easthope talked with each veteran, commenting on issues they are dealing with in their day-to-day lives.

He asked Olsen how he likes his new apartment (he does) and how he's been feeling.

"How is your cold?" Easthope asked.

Olsen said that one went away, but he has another one now.

"Anything I can help you with right now?" Easthope asked, after talking a bit longer.

Olsen indicated he was doing fine.

Back at his seat, Olsen told The Legal News that he's "very happy" with what the court has been able to do for him.

"I think it's a very good thing," he said. "I really do."

Published: Thu, Apr 18, 2013

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