New Court is Sought to Aid Veterans in Arizona Charged with Crimes

The Arizona Republic

January 6, 2009 – For four years, Cody Batroff was a trained killer fighting for his country.

The former Marine served two tours in Iraq, taking out the enemy and ducking roadside bombs.

Although he excelled on the battlefield, the 26-year-old Phoenix resident had trouble readjusting to civilian life.

“You go from killing people to cutting grass, and that’s a reality check,” he said.

He was arrested five times in two years, culminating with a DUI and a disorderly conduct charge for what he nonchalantly describes as “standing in my front yard with a firearm, yelling and screaming.”

Batroff is serving five months in a Maricopa County jail. Although he won’t blame his incarceration on his military service, experts have linked anti-social and criminal behavior with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries suffered by soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Batroff was diagnosed with both.

Court officials recognize a need to treat these soldiers before they get caught up in a cycle of crime.

A coalition of legal officials and advocates for veterans in Maricopa County is considering setting up a special court that would provide vets with the help they need to cope.

That could mean identifying veterans early in the system, connecting them to services the government already provides and linking the vets to a support network.

The goal: Keeping them out of the criminal-justice cycle.

Growing problem

Veterans advocates, along with judges and attorneys, have launched similar specialty courts in Buffalo, N.Y.; and Orange County, Calif.

Studies have shown that 30 to 40 percent of the 1.6 million troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan will “face serious mental-health injuries” such as PTSD or traumatic brain injury.

Because they have no visible scars of war, victims of those ailments frequently suffer in silence, said Shelly Curran, director of court advocacy with Magellan, which manages the public mental-health system in Maricopa County.

The disorders can lead to higher rates of divorce, drug and alcohol abuse and ultimately incarceration or suicide, she said.

“A lot of what brings veterans into contact with the criminal-justice system is the result of injuries they received while they were serving; their behaviors are so tied to whatever that service-related injury could be,” Curran said. “There’s a stigma around seeking services, especially when you come from a culture where it’s important to be strong. It’s less likely for veterans to ask for help.”

The idea behind the veterans court is to identify former soldiers and get them the help they deserve, Curran said.

The exploratory group, headed by retired Superior Court Judge Kenneth Fields, is looking at the court system in Buffalo, which identifies and diverts veterans who commit misdemeanor offenses into a program that offers them counseling and other support services for a time and allows the soldiers to plead to a lesser crime.

It will be months before the committee here gets through the exploratory phase, and it could be longer before veterans advocates, court officials and prosecutors develop the framework to start a similar court here.

The committee is trying to determine how many veterans, such as Batroff, are locked up in Maricopa County. That figure is hard to come by, largely because officials generally don’t ask the question until the defendant is sentenced, if then.

However, a snapshot of adults going through probation in the county during the first six months of last year found that more than 400 people, or more than 7 percent, had served in the armed forces.

With nearly 600,000 veterans in Arizona, experts say, those numbers will likely increase as more return home from the wars.

“One of the things that offended me is seeing a veteran who is self-medicating with alcohol or marijuana or meth and going to court and standing side by side with some gangbanger or lifetime criminal and being treated the same as them,” said Billy Little, an attorney and retired Air Force colonel. “If you can tie the alleged criminal activity to their service, to us, I thought they deserved better than that.”

Little, along with others in the legal community, have pushed for the specialty-court idea and worked with Superior Court Presiding Judge Barbara Mundell to launch the effort.

Next steps

The exploratory committee, which includes representatives from the courts, adult probation, veterans advocates, mental-health providers and the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, hope to present a proposal to Mundell by summer. Fields said the courts likely would not come at any additional costs to the court system.

Although the idea has support among veterans advocates and court officials, it’s not a slam dunk.

The County Attorney’s Office has questioned whether a suspect deserves to be treated any differently because he or she served in the military and whether the court would work with those who commit serious felonies or only lower-level crimes.

County Attorney Andrew Thomas’ office has consistently come out against specialty courts, such as a Spanish-language DUI court, that offer services to certain suspects. But the office has not determined its stance on a potential veterans court.

“Justice is supposed to be blind,” said Barnett Lotstein, a special assistant county attorney. “We have great respect for our veterans, obviously. If it can be shown that a veterans court is not only in the interest of the defendants and the body public, there may be some benefit, unlike the race-based courts, which we are absolutely opposed.”

Courts elsewhere

In upstate New York, Erie County residents have come to expect low-level offenders to get diverted to one of Buffalo’s specialty courts if the suspects qualify, said Judge Robert Russell, who presides over the veterans court.

“Whether they realize it or not, they’re already seeing veterans,” Russell said. “The issue is: Do you design a program that meets the needs of that culture?”

That might have helped Batroff.

Although the Washington High School graduate was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and a frontal-lobe injury and even helped start a PTSD-support group at the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center, it didn’t stop him from acting out.

Counseling and other forms of treatment might have helped, Batroff admits, but those aren’t readily available to county inmates.

“I got thrown in here, so I didn’t get to finish all that stuff,” he said. “Of course, certain sounds are going to make me think of a rocket, or people coming up behind me are going to make me twitch. It’s not like high school: You get out and graduate and it’s over.”

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