Clay County studies court to address concerns of vets
MOORHEAD, Minn. -- It took Thomas Coleman about six seconds to realize he was about to kill his wife.
The Army National Guard specialist was fresh off a plane from a yearlong combat tour in Afghanistan and visiting his wife and their 6-year-old son in January 2009.
But the reunion was more bitter than sweet.
Coleman, 48, and his wife were going through a separation at the time, and it didn't take long for old arguments to flare up. She yelled at him to leave, and Coleman grabbed her by the throat and forced her to the ground.
"I was in combat mode," he said. "I was ready to kill somebody."
The Sacramento, Calif., native was facing his first ever felony charge - a potential 10 years for domestic violence by strangulation. He later pleaded guilty and got three years of probation, but there was little recognition in court of his post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
"The prosecutor just said 'He is violent.' Well of course I was violent. I just got back from war," Coleman said.
The traditional court system often doesn't address issues veterans face, but Clay County court officials are studying a special court devoted to precisely that. It would join a growing list of veterans courts across the U.S. aiming to offer more mental health care for PTSD and chemical dependency, more supervised probation and less time behind bars.
It would be the county's third diversionary court, in addition to a drug court and a domestic violence court.
Judge Lisa Borgen, who also oversees Clay County's drug court, would preside over the court. She and her staff have received a federal grant to attend training in Tulsa, Okla.
If all goes well, Borgen said her new "problem-solving court" could be up and running by fall.
"Sending people to prison doesn't really change the person fundamentally. Sometimes we send someone there, and they just come out a better criminal," she said. "We are seeing positive results in our problem-solving courts, and I just cannot imagine a better population of people to try to help."
Rehab for veterans
A veterans court pilot program began in Minneapolis' Hennepin County in 2010. Tom Figliuzzi, Clay County's veterans services officer, recently visited it to study how the concept might work in Moorhead.
The Hennepin County veterans court meets once a week, Figliuzzi said, and before each day of court, a panel of around 20 people gathers to discuss each veteran case-by-case. The panel includes mental health specialists, life mentors, officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs and both prosecuting and defense attorneys.
"The idea is to help this person not repeat these offenses ever again," he said. "There's more emphasis on the rehabilitation rather than the punishment."
It's a growing trend, with nearly 100 veterans courts in operation across the U.S., according to Justice for Vets, a nonprofit advocate for veterans courts. A program in Clay County would be the only the second across the Dakotas, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota, according to Justice for Vets.
Supporters say the courts serve a need that's also growing. A two-year study released this month by the VA says between 23 and 25 percent of suicides in 2010 in North Dakota were veterans. In Minnesota, it was between 17 and 20 percent.
Nationwide, about 22 veterans killed themselves each day in 2010, a rate that's about 20 percent higher than the VA's 2007 estimate. The study is based on information from 21 states that provided data about suicides.
The VA Health Care System in Fargo was awarded this year an $8.5 million grant to expand its mental healthcare services. More attention to a veteran's mental health is needed, Figliuzzi said.
"You send somebody into hell and then you expect them to just come home and watch the football game and drink a beer with his buddies? It don't work like that," he said.
Judges can grow frustrated from seeing the same veteran in court again and again, each time their patience stretching thinner, said Steve Mottinger, a defense attorney in Fargo who says he represents a few veterans every month.
"You go through the system two or three times and the (PTSD) argument becomes kind of stale," he said. "A lot of times, I think these guys are still struggling with the same issues they were when they went through the system the first time."
Mottinger said a veterans court in Clay County would be a good option to have.
"But it takes a commitment from one of the judges. It takes a commitment from the treatment providers," he said.
Borgen said she, like other specialty court judges, would be invested in the success of each person that came before her bench.
"You are accountable to a judge that actually takes interest in knowing you," she said.
Criticism of the court
There are critics who are concerned that a veterans court is a "get outta jail free card," Figliuzzi said.
The focus is on probation and rehabilitation, Borgen said, so it means less time in jail and prison. Some violent offenders might not be tried in the new court, but that threshold has yet to be set, she said.
Some of the main issues in determining eligibility, according to the National Center for State Courts, are whether to admit veterans accused of felonies and violent crimes - especially in cases domestic violence such as Coleman's.
In Hennepin County, the veteran must face a charge that doesn't carry a mandatory prison term upon conviction and be suffering from a treatable behavioral, substance abuse of mental health issue.
Those who do go through the court, a process that takes 12 to 18 months in Minneapolis, would have to jump through many hoops - routine appearances in court, strict curfews and chemical dependency and mental health evaluations, similar to the requirements in Borgen's drug court.
"It's not 'hug-a-thug,' " she said. "It holds them accountable, but it also encourages and praises the person when they are doing things right."
There are also those who question whether there are enough resources for another time-intensive diversionary court.
Joe Parise, managing attorney of the public defender office in Moorhead, said the system is already clogged with too many specialty courts, and there's not enough staff to go around. Since 2008, Parise said his staff has been cut 35 percent, and no one has received a pay bump.
"They're like unfunded mandates," he said of specialty courts. "We're just expected to put it on our plate and keep marching."
Borgen said virtually no new staff will be needed. She plans to use the same people from her drug court, plus a couple officials from the VA, whom she still needs to bring into the fold.
"We also recognize," she said, "that whether these people are in a veterans court or domestic violence court or drug court, they're still in court."
If the veterans court succeeds, Borgen said she would like to expand it to Becker County, as she has with the drug court.
"We will be really the first multi-county veterans court," she said.
'We owe them'
Coleman finished his probation last year, but the felony on his record is a scarlet letter that chases away potential employers, he said. He was honorably discharged in 2009, but in the process he lost his long career as a federal technician with the National Guard.
He currently lives in Moorhead on VA-administered disability, which he's afraid of losing when they reassess him in one year.
"I don't want to be homeless again. That's my biggest worry," he said.
A veterans court, Coleman said, could have reduced his charges and assisted with his depression, which he said only worsened through his three-month stint in jail during court proceedings.
The VA study shows that 80 percent of failed suicide attempts among veterans occur within the first four weeks after they stop utilizing Veterans Health Administration services. An additional 10 percent occur in the second month following their last visit.
Coleman said he wasn't even aware that Clay County had a veterans service office until the jail nurse, a veteran herself, found him hanging himself from a bed sheet in his cell. He attempted suicide again while on probation.
"If I would've had a veterans court, it might have been a little more access to some kind of mental health (care) instead of sitting in jail getting more depressed," he said.
He now visits VA psychiatrist in Fargo once a month, and he still sees his son, who lives in Hawley with his now ex-wife, a few times a week.
Under supervision of a special court, veterans like Coleman would be afforded that health care sooner and on a more regular basis, Borgen said.
It's a service she feels compelled to provide.
"These people, veterans, gave our country a lot more time than the court hearings that we're going to be having," she said. "We owe them maybe a little bit more of our time."