By Chuck N. Baker
The existence of veterans courts began in Buffalo, New York, and was written about in various publications. A public defender handed one of the articles to Henderson Judge Mark Stevens and suggested it would be a good idea to emulate locally. “And it kind of went from there,” Stevens said. The individual who offered the article volunteered to be the public defender when the court was established, and Stevens said there are now four attorneys who volunteer in the program. Typically defendants have been charged with misdemeanors and/or with service-related illnesses.
Stevens carves out time from his regular court schedule to have veterans appear before him each week. “Thursday afternoons are set aside for Veterans Treatment Court,” he said. When individuals in other Henderson courts identify as veterans, they are asked if they would be interested in having their cases held in a different environment that takes their military experience into consideration. Most agree. He explained, “The program is intense and collaborative and helps the subjects get back on track. As they progress through the program, there are frequent status checks.” The judge explained, “We really rely on mentors who work with individuals in the program. They are each given two mentors, one more experienced, and a newer one. We put the mentors through training so that they know what their role is.”
He pointed out the mentors are not counselors. Judge Stevens noted, “It’s the camaraderie and the structure and discipline mentors provide that help the program to be successful. The judge is a veteran of the Marine Corps, having been a company commander and a judge advocate defense attorney (JAG) officer in Iraq and Somalia.
The court works with defendants who are new to the court system. Those who take part strive to become rehabilitated and avoid any future criminal activity. Often those involved are charged with substance abuse and may have mental health issues, traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Minimally, It takes one year to complete the program, but typically it takes longer. Once completed, veterans can have their records sealed. Candidates for the court are given pamphlets and watch a series of videos that explain the commitment they must make. Along the way there is drug and alcohol testing and they must call in every day. Experts review the mental health and military history of candidates to further ensure they are right for the program.
“Of course, staying out of trouble” is a fundamental part of the program, Stevens cautions.
Employment and education issues for veterans are dealt with in Stevens’ court, and when asked he said he encourages members of the military transitioning to civilian life to attend law school and become attorneys if they are so inclined. And he also encouraged new attorneys to consider joining the military and becoming JAG officers. “By far, the most gratifying part of my work is the Veterans Court,” he said.
To communicate with the court or to obtain more information, citizens are asked to call the judge’s assistant, Amber, at (702) 267-3350, or go to www.cityofhenderson.com/municipal-court/specialty-courts/veteran’s-court.
Telephone and web communication is fine. But the judge encourages individuals to show up in court personally – as guests, that is, not defendants!