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Special courts offer veterans second chance

"Veterans courts" are popping up across the country  aimed at getting nonviolent soldiers with otherwise clean records into treatment, sparing them a criminal conviction.
Image: Andrew Myatt, Dennis Ogg
Dennis Ogg, right, reassures fellow veteran Andrew Myatt during a recess in "veterans court" at the Madison County Criminal Justice center, in Edwardsville, Ill., on Wednesday.Tom Gannam / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

After a high-speed back-and-forth with a driver he says nearly ran him off the road, Army Lt. Andrew Myatt was arrested by police in Illinois and accused of waving a pistol.

But the 41-year-old soldier is getting help through a fledgling court program specifically for current or former members of the military who run afoul of the law.

The "veterans court," one of several popping up across the country, is aimed at getting nonviolent soldiers with otherwise clean records into treatment, sparing them a criminal conviction. Treatment can include psychological counseling or drug and alcohol rehab.

"I've been awed in that they take into account that you volunteered for your country and that it stands for something," said Myatt, with roughly 23 years of service in the Army and, lately, the National Guard. "The judge and the others are saying our own brothers are lost in the system and we can help. This is our own taking care of our own."

The court in Illinois — like others in New York, Tulsa, Okla., and other spots — is patterned on the nation's drug courts, which are meant to keep low-level drug offenders out of overcrowded prisons. Just two months old, the Illinois veterans court is staffed by a judge, public defender and prosecutor who all served in the military.

Veterans and those on active duty are steered toward the court. It is generally offered to offenders whose crimes, mostly misdemeanors, are believed to be related somehow to their military service.

Struggling to readjust
Organizers of veterans courts say the need for them is real and growing, given the thousands of combat veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan who may be struggling to readjust to civilian life.

The first veterans court began in Buffalo, N.Y., in January 2008. Authorities said it is too early to tell whether the courts reduce the rate at which defendants break the law again, but Buffalo has seen encouraging signs. More than 90 percent of the veterans' treatment appointments have been kept there, dwarfing the average rate of 35 percent at general treatment clinics, officials said.

Of 128 veterans who have been referred to Buffalo's program, only four have opted to try their luck in the regular criminal system, said Patrick Welch, a 61-year-old Marine veteran of the Vietnam War who now serves as a mentor.

Offenders who toe the line and follow the treatment regimen can see their charges reduced or dropped. Those who mess up can be sent to jail.

"This provides them an opportunity to get their life back together," Welch said. "It's not a fluff court. If they screw up, the judge has no hesitancy to slap the cuffs on them and put them in jail."

Still, veterans courts have their critics.

Special treatment?
J. Steven Beckett, director of trial advocacy at the University of Illinois' law school, said he has no legal objection to the idea, noting that judges "can do all sorts of things." But he questioned the need to create a system for just one group.

"I think veterans should receive treatment by the courts in recognition of the service that they've given to the country, but I don't understand why the court can't regularly and routinely do that without having a special court," he said.

The man in charge of the Illinois program is Charles Romani Jr., a 26-year Madison County judge and an Army sergeant during the Vietnam War. The prosecutor is a former Marine corporal, the public defender a former Navy lieutenant.

The court held its third monthly session on Wednesday, and it was unlike the usual hushed courtroom. Instead, the room was a place of chatter — at times laughter — from both the accused and the attorneys.

"The whole reason of this is to help people. There's no reason to be formal," the judge said later.

Nine of 11 veterans on the day's docket showed up, and each was screened to see what treatment option would be best for the defendant — or whether the accused even belonged in the veterans court.

'Absolutely marvelous'
Myatt talked helicopters with fellow defendant Dennis Ogg, a 58-year-old Coast Guard veteran on disability. Ogg was there on a drug possession charge, but by the end of the day he had cut a deal, apologetically pleading guilty in exchange for a year of unsupervised probation.

"It's absolutely marvelous," Ogg said afterward.

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Dressed in a charcoal gray suit and striped tie, Myatt sprang to his feet and snapped to attention every time the judge entered the room.

Myatt, who has served in Iraq, was in full-dress uniform in February of last year when he was driving on an interstate highway, on his way to notify a soldier's family that the man had died in Iraq.

Myatt, who says he struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, got angry with another motorist, passed him, then blocked him. The other motorist called police, reporting Myatt was waving a gun, which Myatt disputes. Police seized a pistol from his Jeep, questioned him and let him go. He was arrested a couple of months ago.

No action was taken in his case Wednesday. But after meeting with his public defender, Myatt said that he was hopeful the felony charge might disappear if he continues with his counseling for PTSD.

"Whatever happens, I'll take it like a man," he said. "It's amazing it's available. I feel better knowing they get it, and they're trying."