Pushups near the witness stand, rounds of enthusiastic applause and history lessons from the bench: It’s no ordinary day in court when hearings just for military veterans take place.
“It’s a yes-sir, no-excuses-sir court,” 3rd District Judge Royal Hansen explained from the bench. “When veterans court says this is a second chance for veterans to be successful in life, we really mean it.”
About three dozen onetime military members have had their convictions cleared or reduced through the program, now in its third year. The servicemen and servicewomen maintain a strict regimen of check-ins with the judge, treatment and drug tests, plus appointments with case managers. In exchange, they get cleaner records and strong support.
On Thursday, Cocaine Perry — his given name — appeared on theft charges in Hansen’s courtroom. He told the judge a warrant for his arrest has been issued in Idaho.
“My initial reaction in the past would be to run, but I’m not doing that,” the 34-year-old Perry said. “It’s critical that you reach out for help and ask for it when you need it,” Hansen replied.
His veterans court is one of a handful in Utah, including a Provo-based version; another in Salt Lake City’s Justice Court, which handles misdemeanor cases; and one more in Utah’s federal courthouse. They are among hundreds nationwide that operate on the thinking that for many vets, criminal behavior stems from post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse.
About 50 participants, mostly men, are now working their way through a course set by Hansen, attorneys and others. The majority served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their mentors are largely Vietnam War veterans.
“These people have been raised on that notion that when they’re given an order, they follow through and somebody’s life depends upon it,” Hansen told the Deseret News. “Frankly, their life depends on what they do here, too.”
His courtroom Thursday was a display of camaraderie and compassion, erupting with applause when some veterans’ names were called from the “good list” of those on their best behavior.
The program is voluntary and can take up to three years to complete, depending on a person’s progress. At the end, some will have felony charges dropped to misdemeanors, and for others, their cases will be dismissed entirely.
On Thursday, mentor coordinator Keith Brown tapped a silver dollar-size coin on a seat four times. More than a dozen in the room reached for a keychain or pocket and raised the same token, which indicates their progress.
Two men confessed they forgot their coins, and the judge commanded 20 push-ups from each.
One of the men, Joshua Kinn, later told the judge he spends as much time as he can with his 16-year-old son, goes to the gym every day and attends a weekly mindfulness class at Salt Lake City’s Veterans Medical Center.
Kinn, 43, of Milcreek, said outside the courtroom that he recently completed a substance-abuse treatment program. After two tours in Iraq, where he disarmed bombs, he is fighting insomnia, PTSD and depression. He’s still nursing a back injury from an explosion.
“Some of the things that you go through, some of the things that you see aren’t very pleasant and you’ve got to come back and either put it behind you or deal with it in your life, and live a positive life,” he said.
Easier said than done. Kinn was jailed in an aggravated assault case last year when he opted to participate in veterans court.
“There’s a little bit of a brotherhood because it’s all veterans,” he said. “We can help each other.”
He plans to graduate next year, go back to school and someday open his own business.
In the meantime, he has homework. Hansen disciplined Kinn and others Thursday for being noisy during a graduation ceremony a week earlier, instructing them to write an essay on respect and accountability.
The judge peppered the two-hour session with short military history lessons, including one inspired by a recent trip to Maryland’s Antietam National Battlefield, where Confederate soldiers lost a bloody Civil War clash. His audience listened quietly in the sun-filled room, where military ties reach into almost every square foot. Defense attorney Brenda Viera is an Army brat; bailiff Jake Fuller a former serviceman.
Perry, who is hoping to have the Idaho warrant for his arrest cancelled, said he considers the program his “golden ticket.”
He was among those who felt called to enlist after the Sept. 11 attacks and served from 2005 to 2013, ultimately becoming an Army staff sergeant. He was shot three times in the chest and hit by an explosive during a firefight in Iraq, and later fell short when he jumped from one roof to another, landing on his head.
He gets migraines most days. After emptying prescription bottles for Percocet, he said, he turned to heroin, then sold the drug to support the addiction.
“It just spiraled,” he said. After his return, he ran up against the law in Idaho and cycled in and out of custody in Utah before Veteran Affairs officers managed to track him down and pitch the program. Police reported he had shoplifted and they found heroin on him in February.
He has called Smith, the compliance detective, in the middle of the night to vent or calm down. He once believed he didn’t deserve VA services because he hadn’t lost a limb, but now is being treated for PTSD and anxiety.
“When you see guys graduate, you see the finished product. And it’s like OK, it does work,” Perry said. “It’s pretty much my last chance.”
Cheryl Graves, program manager at the residential treatment center First Step House, said she watches firsthand as many veterans climb a figurative ladder from dishonesty to grace.
“There’s an internal shift,” she said.
After graduation, however, they can sometimes all back into old habits.
Eli Archuleta, a self-described career criminal, graduated last year and credits the program with saving his life. But he relapsed into drug use afterward.
“Now I’m clean. I’m back at the VA, doing what I need to do,” the 58-year-old Archuleta said outside the courtroom Thursday “This court is the bomb because you feel the love. You feel that they care. They have a treatment team. They’re trying to help you get back on track with your life.”
He still attends the hearings on the fourth floor of the court and plans to become a mentor to other servicemen after his probation term ends, he said.
The theme of substance abuse threads through every case, said Unified police detective Greg Smith, the veterans court compliance officer. Many were prescribed powerful opiates for injuries they sustained during war.
“They’re self-medicating. What they’re doing is they’re trying to get away from the things they’ve seen, the things they’ve done, the things they didn’t do but wish they did,” Smith said.
Those who run the court understand that many graduates with addictions will likely end up using drugs or alcohol again. That’s part of why Jessica Mann, with the Veterans Justice Outreach Program, pushes them to spend time with others in recovery as they prepare to graduate.
“It’s creating a community,” she said, “and it’s something that they’ve chosen.”
Utah is home to more than 150,000 veterans, a number that continues to grow as more soldiers return from Iraq and Afghanistan, many with combat experience. With that in mind, the program has applied for a grant that will provide a tool tailored to determine needs and risks of veterans in the criminal justice system. It is also hoping to be chosen as one of four veterans courts around the country to host a pilot program focused on combatting addiction to prescription painkillers and heroin.
The investment acknowledges all Utah’s veterans have sacrificed, Hansen said.
“I see people that you look at on paper and say there’s no way a person with this criminal history and this background could ever be successful in this program,” the judge added.
Then, they graduate.
“It’s a miracle to see things like that happen.”