Specialty court offers troubled veterans a better path

Special courts are part of nationwide trend to help veterans in legal trouble

R. Norman Moody
Florida Today

MELBOURNE, Fla. (AP) — Iraq War veteran Richard “Danny” First got a fresh new start with a slate cleared of criminal charges.

First, 28, served in the war with the Army’s 1st Armored Division. After suffering a traumatic brain injury when a roadside bomb exploded under his vehicle, he came to Melbourne. Living with post-traumatic stress disorder, he fell into trouble with the law.

He recently became the first veteran in Brevard County to complete the Veterans Treatment Court program, established to offer eligible veterans arrested on misdemeanor or criminal traffic offenses other than DUI the option to seek evaluation, treatment, or placement in a program for behavioral health issues, as opposed to being processed through the regular court system.

“I feel great, given the circumstances of the last year,” First said just before Brevard County Judge John Murphy declared him released from the intervention program. “I feel like the program has given me a second chance.”

Those “circumstances” included his arrest on three charges of trespassing of a structure or vehicle and two counts of petty theft. Arrest reports show that the burglarized vehicles were rummaged through and items were moved around, but the only items missing were a plastic case containing band aids and a coin purse.

After completing nine months of aggressive treatment for PTSD, counseling and staying out of trouble, First was cleared of all charges against him.

In addition to the brain injury, the blast left First with an 80 percent hearing loss in his left ear.

“I served my country,” he said. “I never asked for anything in return, so I really appreciate what they’ve done for me. I was given an opportunity to speak my side, and people listened.”

Veterans Treatment Court, started in Brevard in January, is part of a growing nationwide trend that seeks to help veterans suffering from mental health issues or substance abuse by keeping them out of jail. Efforts are made to get veterans treatment that they might not seek on their own or for which they don’t know they are eligible.

There were 97 veteran treatment courts around the nation as of the last official count, made in December by Justice for Vets, part of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. As many as 20 more may have been established since then.

“Jurisdictions all over are turning to Veterans Treatment Courts,” said Chris Deutsch, a spokesman for NADCP. “The growth has really been tremendous.”

Fifteen other veterans, ranging in age from early 20s to late 50s, are currently part of the program in Brevard. One was booted out because he failed to follow the directives.

“I’m very pleased the way the program is going,” said Judge Murphy, who helped start the program and who presides over the cases. “We’re helping these folks reconnect with their families, friends and society.”

Murphy, a retired colonel who served 30 years in the Army, said during the brief ceremony for First that troops make a great sacrifice and sometimes the toll on them is very drastic. He then handed First a certificate of completion and one of his challenge coins, a medallion that bears the military insignia of his former unit that he used to give to soldiers in recognition of special achievements when he served as a brigade commander.

Murphy said he believes intervention by the justice system can help the veterans before they get into more serious trouble.

So far, the program only admits those who are charged with misdemeanors, but could expand later to include those charged with certain felonies.

Corrections officers at the county jail identify the veterans, and then the Department of Veterans Affairs verifies the veterans’ status. The state attorney’s office reviews the charges to determine whether a veteran is eligible for participation in the program. The defense attorney then must get his client to agree to participate and comply with all aspects of the program.

Assistant State Attorney Wayne Holmes, who helped set up the veterans program just as he did with a drug court and mental health court in Brevard, said he was pleased with the progress.
“It opens up a number of resources to the veteran community,” he said.

Holmes said the key to the program is that veterans take advantage of resources available to them.

First said it was what he needed because after serving four years in the Army, including one year in Iraq, and that it was tough transitioning back into civilian life.

He grew up in the small town of Wetumpka, Ala., and the military was one of few career options after high school.

“It looked pretty exciting at the time,” he said.

After he returned from war, he took a few college courses and moved to Melbourne, where he lives with his wife, Amanda. Trouble started soon after when he got caught after multiple car break-ins.

First is planning to move later this year to Largo, where he hopes to start a pool maintenance business.

“I’m very grateful for this programs,” said Art Higgins, First’s attorney. “We’ve got a lot of folks coming back. This is a good way to give them a break and get them the help they need.”

First said that though it is not a great thing to need to use the Veterans Treatment Court, he wants to recommend it to others. He said he feels refreshed and ready to start anew.

“I get to take a look at myself,” First said. “I’m ready. I’m going to continue with the VA. I’m going to continue with treatment.”