Second Chance

Pima County program gives troubled vets a way to get right with the law

It's Fourth of July weekend, and the acrid, steamy late afternoon air has a stale quality to it. A week ago the temperatures set records, and the temps are bound to raise the mercury again this week. I scuttle into the air-conditioned building before my skin starts to boil.

I'm just east of downtown at the La Frontera Center Rally Point offices on Broadway Boulevard to see the real work behind a diversion program for veterans: the Pima County Regional Veterans Treatment Court, or "Vet Court" as it's affectionately called.

I'm greeted by Engel Indo, a mentor coordinator for Rally Point Tucson, a non-profit that helps fill the gap in counseling and mentor services for veterans who might not qualify for Veterans Administration benefits.

As we sit down in his office, I realize we aren't alone, and that Indo is in the middle of helping a veteran with some case work. Indo himself is an Army vet, and he runs the non-profit Pay It Forward Tucson. Those seemingly disparate career fields intermingle perfectly in this mentoring role.

"Don't tell the judge I told you this," he says to the man. "But if this letter right here doesn't convince him, nothing will."

The vet smiles and gets up to leave, but he looks at me and tells me sincerely, "Make this place look nice. They help people here. Plus, they got food."

Indo interjects. "That's the only reason he's here," he shouts, looking at me as he rises and motions for me to follow. "You brought a dessert, right?" he jokes. "It's dinner time."

Since the Vietnam era, America has been in a near constant state of war. From the swamps of South Asia to the sands of Afghanistan, young men and women have volunteered themselves to the service of this country, often in the face of unimaginable horror.

In the best cases, soldiers return, forever changed. But in too many cases, scars—both physical and emotional run deeper. Some never truly heal.

According to think-tank The RAND Foundation, approximately 20 percent of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. If Traumatic Brain Injuries are included, the number is even higher.

Consequently, the country's judicial system has seen an influx of cases, both large and small, involving veterans. About eight years ago, a local judge, carrying the germ of an idea he heard about in passing, decided to do something about it.

Started in Tucson in 2009 by Tucson City Court Judge Michael Pollard, Vet Court first heard only cases within the jurisdiction of the city of Tucson. Pollard, a veteran of Vietnam himself, seems to have a personal understanding of many of the plights combat veterans face.

He still oversees the court, which is housed at Tucson City Court, and convenes every other Tuesday and Wednesday. Follow-up cases are usually held on Tuesdays, while new cases are heard on Wednesdays Pollard said, and he presides over each case.

"We have about 60 to 80 folks in the program at any given time," he said. "Generally, we hear about 20-30 cases on a Tuesday, and about that many again Wednesday."

Project coordinator Cassondra Sepulveda explained that many program participants are not what people expect. 

"A lot of times, this is the first time some of these guys have been through formal court proceedings," she said. "The process can be confusing or overwhelming for anyone."

Entering the program can happen in a variety of ways. On the city side, arresting officers and court clerks can note a veterans' prior service. 

"For our program, if they just served a day or even with a dishonorable discharge, they are eligible," Sepulveda said.

The Veterans Administration, along with partners La Frontera Arizona and Old Pueblo Community Services, also refers clients who may be eligible for Vet Court.

There are limitations. If the current case is a felony, or if there are unresolved felonies on a veteran's record, they are ineligible. Other prior offenses could also be disqualifying. DIU cases are eligible, but only after entering a "guilty" plea.

"The other thing is, this program is only for those who want to participate," Sepulveda said. "It's a non-coercive program." With a duration of (usually) six months, the goal of the program is to help veterans get back on their feet

Indo escorts me into a large meeting room at the heart of the facility where about 15 to 20 veterans of varying age, race and condition are already gathered. I sit off by myself, just hoping to observe as Indo and the other counselors and coordinators prepare to speak.

While most of the vets in attendance have been court-ordered to attend at least up to eight hours of diversion programs, the Friday night discussions and potlucks at Rally Point are open to any vet in need of some company and a warm meal.

Tonight's discussion topic is, aptly, the Fourth of July. The coordinators go first, and a lively discussion ensues about what the Fourth of July means. That somehow leads to a discussion centered on accountability.

One of the more outspoken vets, a former soldier in the Army named Matthew who served a tour in Iraq, sits with me after the talk, and we bond over some excellent home-made pulled pork sandwiches. Feeling somewhat embarrassed, I ask "What are you here for?"

Matthew, who asked his last name to be withheld, explains that his ex-wife accused him of child abuse, and that the case against him became serious enough that he was charged with aggravated assault on a minor. He denied all charges.

"That's why I'm here. My vindictive ex-wife is a pain in the ass, and she tries to make my life hell," he says. "I still have full parental rights. I'm fighting the fight, and I've been fighting her for two years now. I've probably dropped over $12,000 the past eight months."

As we continue to eat, Jim Grover, the Rally Point project coordinator and Matthew's mentor, comes to chat with us. He and Matthew explain to me that Matthew isn't like the typical Rally Point mentee. For his part, Matthew feels the program gave him a needed dose of perspective.

"It reminds me of how fortunate I really am in life," Matthew says. "Some of these people are homeless, some of these people are fighting addictions. That makes my ordeal look like Candyland. I mean, it sucks, it's stressful, but there is a lot worse stuff going on."

He adds that most other vets he has run across in the program aren't diverted to Rally Point for cases like his. "Most are here for like drug or domestic issues it seems," he says.

Matthew opes up about his time in Iraq. In an almost ironic way, he says he liked it, if only for the sightseeing opportunities.

"I got to see Babylonian structures that don't even exist anymore. Because of ISIS, they're gone," he says. "I went to war to fight, but at the same time, I didn't have the mentality of 'all Iraqis are bad.' I didn't go over there thinking everybody was the enemy."

He continues, and as we talk, other veterans stop in and share their stories, or riff on stories Matthew tells. Near the end of the dinner, the counselors and coordinators start to clean up, and I ask Matthew if he has anything else to say.

"I always just think about Iraq," he says. "Whenever I really start to think about getting down or this shit just sucks. And then I just start thinking about combat and sleeping in the dirt with body armor on." Dunscomb credited Pollard with championing the expansion of the court. A contract was worked out to allow for cases that qualified to be transferred to Veteran's Court. Similar agreements now exist with the other major municipalities in the county.

The SAMSHA grants also allowed Vet Court to provide mental health and lifestyle resources to veterans who separated from the military with anything less than an honorable discharge. Only honorably discharged veterans are eligible for Veterans Administration benefits.

Once qualified, participants agree to personalized counseling, an attendance-tracked diversion class and mandatory meetings with a court-appointed mentor. These resources provide both an outlet for veterans and a way to keep tabs on their progress, Sepulveda said.

"We do require sobriety throughout the process," she said. "No alcohol or drug use is allowed."

Even with the at-will nature of Vet Court, the recidivism rate among program participants is 17 percent, according to data from the county. That's considerably lower than the state average, which the Pew Research Center put at 39 percent.

Judge Pollard predicted a few months ago that while the SAMSHA funding was integral in expanding the court, it was unlikely that either grant would be renewed.

"I didn't realize how spoiled I had become, we were operating on about $600K a year," he said. "And, that is probably going away. What we are trying to do is pare down the court a little bit."

One SAMSHA grant ran out on Sept. 30, but Vet Court had $182,000 left over, which they'll continue to use. Additionally, there's one year left on the other grant of $342,000. Besides that, Oro Valley has committed $75,000 and Marana $20,000.

Vet Court asked the City of Sahuarita to contribute $75,000 and the City of Tucson to contribute more than that, but so far neither city has committed to a dollar amount. Vet Court didn't ask South Tucson to contribute because of the smaller city's current financial status and the low number of veterans they've referred to the program.

Additionally, Pollard, along with nine others, recently formed a 501c3 to help raise funds for Vet Court. Called Southern Arizona Veterans for Justice, Pollard hopes it can fill the void in funding left by the expiration of the SAMHSA grants.

The non-profit has set, by Pollard's estimate, a robust goal of raising $600,000 in its first year.

"In Phoenix, raising $600,000 would be no problem," he said. "In Tucson there is Jim Click, Robert Ramierez (CEO of Vantage West Credit Union. Those two are real generous. But after that, boy. You know in Phoenix people write checks for a million dollars."

Pollard credits a lot of the program's success to the court's expanded mentor program. Sponsored by non-profits La Frontera and Old Pueblo Community Services, the program is another result of expansion made possible by the SAMSHA grants.

Veterans going through Vet Court are paired with a mentor. Although all mentors are volunteers, unlike most diversion programs, potential mentors must have served in the armed forces. 

"The military changes people. You get used to a regimen, to a way of doing things," Pollard said. "When you introduce someone who will hold them accountable, who has that same warrior mentality, you see the training come back."

Often, mentors and participating veterans become close friends, with mentors attending the participants "graduation ceremony" from the program. 

Those sort of relationships, Pollard noted, were a struggle for public defenders to create with veterans. That all changed after a meeting with a few University of Arizona Law School students.

"Three law students, two Marines and an Army vet, came to me and said, 'This is something we can do,'" Pollard said. "Right away I could see the response the vets had working with someone who could relate to those experiences."

The University of Arizona's James E. Rogers School of Law Veterans' Advocacy Law Clinic helps represent veterans who can't afford counsel go before the court. That totals about "99 percent" of cases, said Kristine Huskey, attorney and director of the clinic.

The court website defines a program success as a participating veteran, "moving toward self-sufficiency and permanently enhancing their ability to lead an independent, law-abiding and employed lifestyle."

Sepulveda believes the court's mission is simpler. "The end goal is to have these veterans walk out of here better than they came in."

As the presiding judge, Pollard, takes the long view of Vet Court and the effects it has on veteran's lives, as well as the lives of many soldiers who are still active duty.

During last month's graduation ceremony, Pollard introduced himself and congratulated a younger-looking graduate.

"He told me he was active duty, and that in a week he was heading back for his fifth tour in Afghanistan," Pollard said. "It just goes to show what dedicated young men and women we have in our armed services. That's why this court is important."

Two grants from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association allowed for Veterans Court toexpand county-wide, to include the municipalities of Oro Valley, Marana, Sahuarita and South Tucson in 2013.

Oro Valley Town Magistrate George