SOLDIERING FOR JUSTICE: Aurora opens special court for military vets afoul of the law

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AURORA | Military veterans who find themselves on the wrong side of the law in Aurora and nearby communities could qualify for some special help as their cases work through the criminal justice system.

Last month, court officials announced the creation of a new 18th Judicial District Veterans Treatment Court, the second “problem-solving court” in Colorado designed specifically for military veterans diagnosed with certain mental health disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury related to their military service. The bulk of the defendants will be facing felony charges.

The court will serve veterans in Arapahoe, Lincoln, Douglas and Elbert counties and is similar to the Veteran Trauma Court in El Paso County, which has been operating for three years.

Danielle Hamilton, the 18th Judicial District Veterans Treatment Court Coordinator, said the court is also similar to the 18th Judicial District’s Mental Health Court, which aims to divert people with diagnosed mental illness from jail into treatment programs.

The primary difference — beyond the veteran’s court serving only defendants who have served in the military — is that the veteran’s court will treat more defendants who have violent crimes. The mental health court serves mentally-ill defendants who have primarily non-violent records, but Hamilton said many of the veterans in the justice system are there for violent offenses, so the court needs to accept those cases.

The veterans court is a joint project between prosecutors, the courts, police and the probation department. Before being accepted into the court, defendants will be reviewed by a screening team that includes prosecutors, public defenders and the 18th Judicial District Probation Department. Other partners in the program include the U.S. Veterans Administration, Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, and Addictions Research Treatment Service.

The court serves as a sort of intensive probation, with regular appearances before a judge for reviews of a defendant’s progress, frequent contact with probation officers and random drug tests. Hamilton said there will also be peer mentors — veterans who themselves have been tangled in the criminal justice system but have worked through their problems — who will help the defendants.

As a defendant progresses through the program, they will have less-frequent visits with the court and eventually graduate. Defendants who slip up could land back in jail.

Most defendants are expected to complete the program in 18 to 24 months.

“We are proud to be able to offer this specialty court and associated treatment and other services to men and women who’ve served our country in the military,” Magistrate Beth Elliott-Dumler, who presides over the Veterans Treatment Court docket, said in a statement announcing the program. “Our purpose really is to help eligible veterans safely stay in the community, get needed treatment and avoid further involvement in the criminal justice system.”