Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Vets get aid with legal problems

Vets get aid with legal problems
Special courts work with VA, bar association
By Donna Leinwand

Marshall Callahan had $300 in his pocket and a powerful craving for booze when he got stranded in Lee's Summit, Mo., on a cross-country drive two years ago.

The former Marine Corps aviation mechanic says he drank until he was broke, blacked out and woke up in jail. It wasn't the first time. Callahan, 47, has been homeless on and off for 15 years.

"I've been in all the jails here. I've been in all the detoxes. Any life I had that I could ruin, I ruined," says Callahan, who served in the Marines from 1981 to 1985 in Cherry Point, N.C.

Now Callahan, sober since Oct. 15 and living in a Salvation Army shelter, is eagerly awaiting Dec. 9, his day in a Kansas City, Mo., veterans court, where a volunteer lawyer will assist him with his thicket of nuisance citations, such as sleeping in public.

"This is a big deal for someone used to living on the street and not having any money," Callahan says. "This is a golden opportunity."

Special courts aimed at helping veterans with legal problems are emerging around the country as servicemembers return from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, spurring efforts to help them and others who served in the military.

In the past two years, 22 cities and counties, such as Buffalo, Chicago, Tulsa and Pittsburgh, have opened courts with dockets reserved for veterans. Kansas City held its first session in August. At least 39 others are planned for next year, Department of Veterans Affairs records show.

The courts coordinate with the VA and other service providers so veterans such as Callahan charged with minor infractions can opt into services such as drug treatment or job training to avoid jail or fines and ultimately have their cases dismissed. The VA estimates that veterans account for 10% of the people who have criminal records.

"In most instances, the folks in need of this special service are people who are suffering or have had legal issues as a result of their military service," says Brian Christensen, a former Navy lawyer who helped organize the Kansas City court and will represent Callahan for free at the once-a-month veterans docket. "They deserve a little bit extra from society."

The special courts began after judges and lawyers saw a growing number of veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with signs of post-traumatic stress disorder or substance-abuse problems, says Paul Freese, a Los Angeles attorney who advises the American Bar Association's Commission on Homelessness and Poverty.

Many veterans who come to the courts are homeless and have amassed citations for minor, non-violent offenses, such as sleeping in public or loitering. They could not pay the fines or get to court, so judges issued warrants that prevent them from getting jobs, housing and benefits, Freese says. Neither the ABA nor the VA tracks how many of these veterans successfully completed their programs.

"Communities want to help these soldiers come back without the outcomes we saw after the Vietnam War," such as homelessness, unemployment and substance abuse, Freese says. "I think we're at a critical juncture where these courts can exponentially increase."

This month, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki announced a five-year goal to end homelessness among veterans. The VA estimates 131,000 veterans are homeless, but Shinseki said homelessness could increase by 10% to 15% over the next five years without aggressive steps to help veterans.

In May, he directed every veterans center to designate a staff member to work with the courts to ensure veterans in the criminal justice system can tap into VA services, says Jim McGuire, who manages the agency's Health Care for Reentry Veterans program.

"The VA in the past hasn't been as aggressive about reaching out to the courts. We want to ramp that up," says Sean Clark, national coordinator for Veterans Justice Outreach at the VA.

Callahan, after eight months sober, went on a drinking binge two days before his first scheduled court date in October and missed it. He returned to the Salvation Army shelter to detox. Then, "in through the Federal Express mail comes a letter saying the lawyer went to court and got a continuance," giving him a second chance to show up at court. "I couldn't believe it," he says.

Callahan vows not to miss his December hearing. He wants to finish cosmetology school, get a job in a salon and learn to play the cello.

"I have a chance," he says.
Vets get aid with legal problems

Sphere: Related Content