On a recent morning, SLO Superior Court Judge John Trice’s courtroom was filled with staffers from various county agencies, citizen volunteers, and of course, some 20 men and women ready to stand accountable for their criminal violations.
The odd thing was, everyone seemed glad to be there.
The latter group was in a courtroom about to go before a judge, yes. But they’re also taking advantage of a new court program to treat the underlying problems that have led them here, rather than sitting in a jail cell. In a normal treatment program, they’d be called patients, clients, or, in a courtroom setting, defendants. In reality, these folks are all three.
This isn’t a normal morning in Trice’s courtroom. Every one of the men and women before him has served in the country’s armed forces, and a multi-agency group has allowed them to address their very real underlying problems and avoid jail time in the immediate, and hopefully long-term, future.
Veterans Treatment Court saw its first local hearing on Flag Day, June 14, of this year. It just celebrated its first six months in existence, and though none of the participants has yet made their way through the entire program, many in attendance are expected to complete their requirements and graduate this summer. Once successful, their offenses are either dismissed or expunged.
The archetype of the county’s program began in Buffalo, New York, in 2008. Since then, Vets Courts have spread across the country, and SLO County’s is the fifteenth in the state. Simply put, the program allows veterans who’ve come into the criminal justice system for non-violent offenses to receive rehabilitation from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.) if there can be a nexus established between the person’s military service and afflictions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and sexual trauma. It links local agencies by having the V.A. provide staff in courts, offer treatment, and use trained volunteer mentors to guide the veterans through the program.
It’s an ambitious program that requires collaboration between a gamut of agencies: the court, the Sheriff’s Department, Probation, Mental Health, the District Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office, and Veterans Services. All of these agencies currently work together, but with a V.T.C. they have the added resources of a V.A.-provided Veterans Justice Coordinator and trained volunteer veteran mentors.
The idea is that it helps rehabilitate the servicemen or women, reduce recidivism rates, and reduce costs across the board.
Superior Court Judge Trice—himself a veteran—handles the program’s cases. Following the hearing, Trice told New Times that most of the participants in the program are there for substance abuse-related problems and offenses.
The veterans before Trice that morning served in capacities across the map. A few served in the Vietnam War and have long struggled to fully return to society.
“They didn’t have P.T.S.D. in the ’70s. Some of these individuals have been self-medicating for decades now,” Trice said.
Despite the consequences for failure hanging heavy on everyone’s minds, the courtroom, draped in flags from the Army, Marines, Coast Guard, Air Force, and Navy, has the feel of an after-work support group rather than a court hearing. Trice talks to each of the veterans personally, asks them how the last few weeks have been, what their plans are for the holidays. He knows most of their personal situations, shares his pleasure over their victories—however small—and discusses with them their strategies for keeping them going.
Some men had reported that while the holidays were coming up and times were tough given their current legal troubles, things overall were looking up, with help from the V.A. and their mentors. One participant reported on his progress for getting out of a local homeless shelter and finding a sober-living facility.
“We hate to see it for anyone, but I really hate to see our veterans living in homeless shelters,” Trice said.
Another veteran tells Trice about the latest Vets Surf Team’s meet. Though he’s relatively new to the sport and still technically a participant in the program, the vet volunteers his time to teach other veterans to surf. And the look on his face said the meet went well, and that in turn makes Trice stoked.
In fact, whether or not they had a setback or step forward to report to Trice, most men returned to their seats smiling, accepting pats on the back from their mentors along the way.
The idea for the local program was brought to the court and D.A.’s Office more than two years ago, and by all accounts was promoted heavily by Deputy District Attorney—and Iraq War veteran and June 2014 D.A. candidate—Dan Dow, as well as Dana Cummings, the county’s director of Veterans Services. It took considerable work from everyone involved to draft the policies of the county’s specific program before it was eventually launched.
Trice and Cummings acknowledged that although everyone appeared supportive at first, there were initial “differences of opinion” over how it would be run, particularly in the D.A.’s Office.
“Their job is to protect the community. We had to really sell them that this is going to be a huge benefit to the county,” Cummings told New Times.
At approximately $120 per day, it costs big bucks to house a single person in jail. On the flipside, San Diego County’s program saved taxpayers about $1 million in one year, Trice said.
“These programs save counties money,” he said.
Every week, the Sheriff’s Department provides the court with a list of the veterans in custody at the county jail. That information is taken to Veterans Services and the D.A.’s Office, which is tasked with determining if the offender is a good candidate for treatment court.
“The question is, did they commit this crime as a result of their service,” Cummings said.
But one major obstacle to the program is getting criminal offenders to identify themselves as veterans early in the process of going through the system. Many don’t consider themselves veterans unless they’ve seen combat, Trice noted. Some counties with programs in place, such as Orange County, only allow combat vets to participate.
“From firsthand experience, I think they’re doing a great disservice to the veterans and the community by only accepting combat vets,” Trice said.
William Lovenduski, 36, was the only person currently in custody to stand before Trice that morning. Serving a nine-month sentence in the county jail for a probation violation—possession of drug paraphernalia and obstruction of justice—Lovenduski sat in the jury section of the courtroom, dressed in the light-blue uniform assigned to those inmates who have behaved themselves and focused on bettering their situation enough to do the remainder of their time housed in the jail’s Honor Farm.
Trice knows Lovenduski from his years of court appearances, and one can see the judge’s admiration for how the troubled veteran is holding up, and his prospect for actual success upon release, which is soon approaching. When he’s out, Lovenduski will have nobody to support him—his family members all live on the East Coast—other than those he has met and worked with through the program.
“Usually when I walk out those [jailhouse] doors, I’d just be homeless anyway, so why bother calling probation? The only way to stay sober is to go to jail,” he told the judge. “Just being here today, it gives me hope.”
“And this is just the tip of the iceberg,” Trice responded with a smile before congratulating him on his successes and moving to the next participant.
A little more than a week later, Lovenduski sat at a table in the Honor Farm visiting room among the couples and families visiting their loved ones for the last visitation before Christmas. If it were not for a New Times reporter’s curiosity about treatment in the veterans court, Lovenduski would have no visitors that day.
There’s no one left in his once-large circle of family and friends to come and check in on his progress, he said solemnly, his large hands folded, his hulking frame hunkering over the table.
Lovenduski hasn’t held a job, owned a bank account, or had any hope beyond getting loaded in about 10 years. He once had a happy marriage, and then later another, two houses. But like many of the good things in his life, they all fell by the wayside following his return from service.
He served as a Marine, he said proudly, in Bosnia in 2000. Like most servicemen and women, Lovenduski didn’t see any “action,” but remains proud that he was among the first in his unit to land in the war-torn country, and helped coordinate and carry out the successful landing of his fellow soldiers.
He left the service on a medical discharge in 2002, and was diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder shortly thereafter. He divorced, remarried, went through a string of jobs and a series of events that only exacerbated his P.T.S.D. symptoms.
“I just couldn’t deal with it,” Lovenduski told New Times. “My home life was shit, I was drinking every day, couldn’t hold down a job—I just couldn’t hold it all together.”
According to V.A. statistics, it is estimated that some 35 percent of post-9/11 combat theater veterans—or some 770,000 men and women—suffer P.T.S.D. symptoms.
Lovenduski doesn’t blame the military for his troubles, however—he admits that his P.T.S.D. existed long before his service—but acknowledges that the military did nothing to ease the affliction.
“I stand by the military completely. But whether or not you’re in battle, they break you down before they try to build you back up,” he said. “They definitely didn’t make me a better person. But they made me a good soldier.”
But since his discharge, Lovenduski’s been in and out of jail and rehab some 27 times, by his count. Before his most recent stint of incarceration, he was living in a foxhole he dug himself—literally a hole in the ground—somewhere on Cerro San Luis Obispo mountain. A foxhole, he said, which eventually filled with trash, bottles, and used needles. When he returned to jail, he coordinated with probation officers over the telephone to help them locate the remote hole and fill it up forever.
“I couldn’t live if I knew a kid was out playing around there, tripped on a trip wire and fell into the hole. I just wouldn’t be able to live with myself,” he said.
The hole, like Lovenduski’s newfound drive for treatment and recovery since, was indeed filled. During his time in jail he’s come to realize, he said, that with the help of his mentor and the other folks around him thanks to his participation in veterans court, anybody can turn it around.
He now spends a large amount of his time cooking at the Honor Farm, where he’s been housed since October. With encouragement from his V.T.C. mentor and probation officer, he recently obtained his food handler’s card, and is looking forward to finding a job where he can cook—create, he said—at a restaurant. For the first time in more than a decade, he has some sort of a plan for after his release, currently set for Feb. 28.
“It gives me hope. It shows that there are people out there who have compassion,” he said. “In [Narcotics Anonymous] and [Alcoholics Anonymous] you’re getting help from people who are forced to care, who are trying to help themselves one way or another. But these guys, they’re taking their own time to help me out because they want to.”
The soft-spoken and contemplative Lovenduski used words like “excited,” “joyful,” and even “liberated” when describing how he feels about his immediate future. He said he hasn’t awoken to a P.T.S.D.-related nightmare in months.
“I don’t know where it went, I just know that it’s not here right now,” he said with a smile that couldn’t lie. “I think I found my soul, right here in San Luis Obispo County Jail.”
News Editor Matt Fountain can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.