FARMINGTON — A local official with the New Mexico VA Health Care System is working to create a specialized court that would provide treatment and support for veterans charged with criminal offenses.
Linda Shannon, a veterans justice outreach specialist, said she has been working for two years to create a local veterans court. She said she has received support for the idea from the district attorney and the district public defender and is currently seeking a judge who could preside over the court. She said she will be presenting information on veterans courts to local judges at a training session on July 31.
"I am trying really, really hard to push for it," she said.
She said that a veterans court could help provide accountability for incarcerated veterans, as well as help with issues of housing, employment and mental health.
According to the National Center for State Courts, the veterans court treatment model was created in 2008 in Buffalo, N.Y., to address issues of drug or alcohol addiction and mental illness in the incarcerated veteran population. The court is modeled on drug and mental health treatment courts, which provide substance abuse or mental health treatment as an alternative to incarceration.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Dustin O'Brien said the Eleventh Judicial District currently has a drug court and a mental health court and admittance into either program is an alternative to incarceration. He said his office would support a veterans court in the Eleventh Judicial District.
"For us, if there is an alternative to locking somebody up that has a specific need that can be addressed, such as a mental health issue, post-traumatic stress disorder, or it may simply be that the veteran does not know how to utilize the benefits available to them through the VA, we will support that," he said.
Shannon said she is currently working to create the veterans court at the magistrate level, but would not be opposed to a district court program.
The veterans court would likely model the district's drug court, which participants can be admitted into as part of sentencing, O'Brien said.
Once admitted, participants must undergo frequent, random drug testing, receive counseling and meet regularly with case managers and the drug court judge to progress through the program. A positive drug test results in sanctions, ranging from one to five days in jail and delayed graduation. The drug court judge can remove a participant from the program after his or her fifth sanction or if the participant commits another technical violation of probation.
Participants graduate from the program if they maintain sobriety for at least 90 days, consistently attend group therapy, and pay all drug court program fees, among other requirements.
O'Brien said many participants of the program have received a conditional discharge sentence, meaning that if they successfully graduate, they can avoid incarceration or other forms of punishment.
New Mexico's Second Judicial District in Albuquerque is currently the only court in New Mexico that provides specialized treatment for veterans. Participants in the Albuquerque veterans court, created in November 2011, must have served in the U.S. military and co-occurring disorders, such as both mental health and substance abuse disorders. They also must have been charged with a qualifying felony offense and be competent to stand trial.
Shannon said that her office would be able to offer participants help with employment, housing issues and mental health treatment if the program was created. She said that about 10 percent of the total veteran population — 9,100 in San Juan County — will become involved in the criminal justice system during their lifetimes.
According to Officer Ronald Foust, 68 veterans have been incarcerated at the San Juan County Correctional Center in 2014.
"It will not be a full court, with 30-some participants, but it can certainly serve up to 10 people," Shannon said. "Serving 10 people is better than serving none."