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Cook County Veterans Court offers helping hand
Judge sets up a system of services and support for those in trouble after serving U.S.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Chicago Tribune
by Matthew Walberg

For the first time in three decades, Army veteran Eric Myers says he is confronting his addiction to heroin, an addiction that sent him to federal prison, ruined his marriage, cost him many jobs and most recently led to his arrest for drug possession.

Now he meets daily with a social worker and attends classes on drug addiction and behavior modification, all mandated by Cook County Veterans Court, a newly formed court geared to military veterans charged with non-violent crimes, mostly drug offenses.

"This arrest saved my life," said Myers, 54. "If I hadn't got caught, I wouldn't have ever thought about getting clean."

The court is part of a small but growing national trend to help veterans who sacrificed for their country. While the law treats the veterans no differently from other defendants, the court tries to deal with any underlying problems that contributed to their legal troubles in the hope that they can avoid further run-ins with the law.

The court links them with representatives from state and federal veterans affairs departments and social and legal aid agencies who offer many services and help cut through red tape that stymies many veterans.

"There's no extra cost because what this really does is place people into services that are already out there," said Circuit Judge John Kirby, who started the court this spring.

"What we're trying to do is say, 'OK, you served your country, now let us help you. Can we help you past this problem and back on the straight and narrow?' "

The court is modeled after other "treatment courts" for mentally ill or drug-addicted defendants and comes in response in part to concerns that many new veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could be caught in the legal system if they don't receive treatment.

Eugene Herskovic, who oversees the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs' homeless program in the upper Midwest, said a handful of courts for veterans have opened across the country in the last two years.

"It's not just about helping veterans," Herskovic said. "It's about the judiciary looking for better ways to deal with people who have certain problems. Incarcerating people doesn't necessarily solve their issues."

In Illinois, the General Assembly passed legislation establishing a commission to set standards for courts for veterans. Other states have passed or are considering similar measures.

The American Civil Liberties Union said Nevada's recently enacted statute gives veterans an unfair advantage over average citizens. But Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the ACLU of Illinois, said Cook County's new court is fundamentally different.

"The concern expressed in Nevada was that individuals who served in the military were sort of automatically transferred into this special court and were provided some options for lower-level sentences," he said. "It was based on the [military] status rather than the crime."

The Cook County court, however, "seems to track the model of the drug and mental-health treatment courts that, frankly, seem to be working well," Yohnka said. "We really would like to see these types of programs extended to all sorts of people. Diversionary programs that provide services, training and health care are a very good thing."

Since April, veterans charged with less serious felonies for which probation is an option -- mostly drug-related offenses -- are identified on intake into Cook County Jail.

Once authorities determine they were honorably discharged from the military, they are offered the chance to have their cases heard in Veterans Court.

So far, about two dozen vets have signed on, said Kirby, who holds court once every two weeks. Most of them are older, but at Friday's court session, the first veteran of the Iraq War showed up to learn about the program.

Luis Ruiz, 27, of Palatine has been charged with felony theft. His lawyer, Julie Aimen, said Ruiz, a Marine veteran, has post-traumatic stress disorder.

"He doesn't sleep. His visual images of combat and dealing with the things that he saw -- and I don't know, maybe participated in -- have played heavily on how he structures his life," Aimen said.

Those who choose to participate in Veterans Court don't receive any special treatment under the law. But the court, working with prosecutors, public defenders, veterans and social service organizations, and the John Marshall School of Law, meet with the vets to determine their needs and offer assistance for drug treatment, housing, health care and job training.

Myers says his problem with heroin began during his military service in West Germany. It was a world away from his West Side upbringing.

"Before enlisting I was working in a restaurant, had a nice girlfriend, and five months later I was working with tanks, .50-caliber machine guns and eating C-rations," he said. "I never got used to it."

Myers said he was startled at the quick help he received from the Veterans Court for his heroin addiction.

"I wasn't getting any cooperation from anybody," said Myers, recalling earlier efforts to receive treatment from the VA. "They take you through this long process and then they don't do anything. When they brought me down here [to Veterans Court], this was the first time I felt like somebody was helping me."

Myers spent 90 days in a court-ordered drug addiction and behavior modification program before pleading guilty to possession of a controlled substance on June 12. Kirby sentenced him to 2 years of probation.

As part of his probation, Myers must attend classes at Jesse Brown VA Medical Center such as "Theories of Addiction" and "Long-Term Recovery." He also must meet with a social worker daily for three months.

But the program is not toothless.

On Friday, Kirby learned that Ronald Washington, a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, tested positive for cocaine last month.

Washington pleaded guilty in May to a charge of drug possession and was sentenced to probation after a baggie of cocaine was found in his car during a traffic stop earlier this year.

But in a recent interview with the Tribune, Washington had denied guilt, claiming the drugs had been hidden by a previous owner between seats in a car he had just purchased. He said he pleaded guilty to gain access to veterans benefits and avoid prison.

Washington, 62, admitted he used drugs in Vietnam and on his return to the U.S. while working as a bus driver.

"In my life, I smoked a bit of weed, I smoked a bit of coke because I had a lot of problems," he said in the interview.

But upon learning of the positive drug test Friday, Kirby ordered Washington to jail for 30 days for violating his probation.

Washington protested, saying he "went back to the wrong area" and fell into his old addiction, but Kirby cut him off.

"Here's the thing: I gave you probation. I gave you treatment," he said. "You said you went back to the wrong area. You put [cocaine] in your system."

Washington then backtracked, saying that his failed test resulted from being with others who were using cocaine.

"How'd it get in your system?" Kirby asked.

"Because I inhaled it going by them," Washington said.

"That's an out and out lie," said Kirby, his voice rising in anger. "You can't get cocaine in your system from somebody else. You think I don't know this?"

As the deputy started to lead Washington toward the lockup, the judge warned him that if he continued to get high, he was going to prison for a lengthier time.

"Don't play," Kirby said. "You can't take drugs in my program."

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