Marin creates drug court for military veterans
Marin County has launched a drug court for veterans that gives offenders a potential clean slate if they complete a rehabilitation program.
“It’s really a chance to offer people who have taken the oath to serve our country the specialized treatment that they need,” said Marin County Superior Court Judge Roy Chernus, who has overseen the court’s creation and will preside over it. The program started Tuesday.
According to Justice for Vets, a division of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, there are more than 300 veterans’ treatment courts throughout the United States, including San Francisco, Sonoma and Napa counties.
“Marin is kind of late to the party on this one,” Chernus said.
As recently as 2018, researchers working for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that half of veterans in the criminal courts had either mental health problems — such as post-traumatic stress syndrome, depression and high anxiety — or substance abuse disorders. The researchers also reported that a large percentage of veterans were homeless or at risk for homelessness.
“We have learned that the people who have served us have been harmed,” Chernus said at Tuesday’s launch. “You take care of the people who have taken care of you.”
The judge said the trauma veterans endured during their service has placed them at increased risk for committing a litany of offenses such as domestic violence, intoxicated driving and drug crimes.
Chris Deutsch, a spokesperson for Justice For Vets, said, “It is now widely accepted that for too long we’ve been relying on punishment to solve the problem of addiction and mental health in the justice system.”
The new veterans court will be similar to Marin courts that offer diversion from jail to defendants with mental health and substance abuse issues, as well as domestic violence offenders. In addition to Chernus, the treatment court will be overseen by a team that will include representatives from the district attorney’s office, the public defender’s office, the probation department, the Marin County Sheriff’s Office and the Marin County Veterans Service Office.
The golden ring that participants in the program will be seeking is dismissal of their charges.
“We can even agree to have their arrest record sealed,” Chernus said.
The judge noted, however, that program participants must earn such rewards by adhering to the requirements of the program, and could face immediate penalties if they shirk their duties.
He said sanctions could include community service hours; increased attendance of Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings; more therapy treatments; or even a weekend in the county jail.
Chernus said normally a court process is required before revoking probation and returning an offender to jail, but the treatment court’s sanctions will be administered swiftly.
Treatment court experts have found that the sooner a sanction is administered after an undesirable behavior, the more effective it is in altering that behavior, Chernus said. The same goes for rewarding desired behavior.
One reason that Marin County delayed creating a veterans treatment court is that it has fewer veterans than many other counties. Another problem hurdle it has faced is identifying veterans who have been arrested.
That is now being done with the assistance of the Marin County’s Sheriff’s Office, which is tapping into a federal database, the Veteran Re-entry Search Service, an automated system that can locate veterans who are incarcerated in correctional facilities nationwide,
Sgt. Brenton Schneider of the Marin County Sheriff’s Office said there were six veterans in the county jail on Wednesday.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in 2011-12 some 181,500 inmates — or 8% of the incarcerated population — were veterans. The figure excludes military sites.
In 1978, by comparison, 19% of U.S. adults, 24% of prisoners and 25% of jail inmates were military veterans.
Deutsch said there is a very practical reason why veteran treatment courts make sense.
“When we have veterans spread over a number of court dockets, it can be really difficult to connect them to the specific local, state and federal resources that they’ve earned through their military service,” he said. “By clustering them on a single docket and bringing all of those resources into the courtroom, it becomes much easier.”
In addition, Deutsch said, “We have an obligation to come to the aid of the men and women who served, if they suffered as a result of that service. Veterans treatment courts are a part of ensuring that no veteran is left behind.”