A first-of-its-kind local court program has engendered another one.
On June 3, Clark County’s Veterans Therapeutic Court began accepting misdemeanor- and felony-case referrals without requiring defendants to plead guilty, offering them a chance to have their charges dropped with prejudice — meaning they cannot be refiled. Previously, the court only accepted misdemeanor cases after defendants pleaded guilty.
The overhaul largely mirrors one made by the county’s Mental Health Court in January 2018. The mental health program was the county’s first pre-plea felony court; in June, a ceremony was held for its first graduate.
“I hardly have words to tell you,” Therapeutic Specialty Courts Coordinator Beth Robinson said joyfully at a June 12 informational meeting. “As wonderful as that is to see in Mental Health Court, I want to see that in veterans court.”
Established in 2011, the veterans court has a capacity of 50. To date, 62 people have completed the program, a 70 percent graduation rate that is significantly higher than other local therapeutic courts, Robinson said.
“People are definitely held accountable, but we’re also looking at what’s going on in their life, where they’re at in treatment and where they’re at with recovery as we’re making a decision on how to help them move forward,” Robinson said. “With the veterans, the accountability is just a very important piece of it, and I think they kind of see the judges as their commanding officer, and the relationship that they build with the judge is so important when it comes to how they’re progressing in court.”
Prosecutors, who must approve any case referral, act as the program’s gatekeepers.
“The groundwork was kind of laid, and I think when the (Clark County) prosecutor’s office and the (Vancouver) city attorney saw the success of (the mental health) program, they were willing to expand it to veterans court,” Robinson said.
A 2014 Washington State University Vancouver study of the veterans court revealed an 8 percent post-program recidivism rate.
“There is less recidivism,” Vancouver Assistant City Attorney Lacey Nichols said. “It’s nice to see them engage and be successful and not commit new crimes.”
Crime victims’ input will carry significant weight in the prosecutor’s decision on whether to approve a defendant for the pre-plea program, Clark County Senior Deputy Prosecutor James Smith said.
Defendants are disqualified if they have been convicted of or are charged with a violent or sex crime, a crime that involves firing or threatening to fire a weapon, or vehicular homicide.
Those charged with driving under the influence, driving while younger than 21 after consuming alcohol or marijuana, first-degree negligent driving or having physical control of a vehicle while under the influence are not eligible for the pre-plea program. However, they may be eligible on a post-plea basis. If the charge involves a victim who is younger than 18 or older than 65, or domestic violence, the referral must be approved by the city attorney or chief criminal deputy prosecutor.
“I think that, at this point, both the city prosecutor’s office and the county prosecutor’s office support our therapeutic programs. But they have an obligation to the public on what cases they might refer, so we’ve gotten a lot of cooperation, but it’s cautious cooperation,” Clark County District Court Judge John Hagensen said. “They make sure that all the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed to make sure that they’re carrying out their responsibilities, as they should.”
To qualify for the program, defendants must also be Clark County residents who are eligible to receive benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and have confirmation of honorable discharge status. Proof is also required that the alleged crime is linked to a mental illness or substance abuse issue.
“I believe that it’s a win-win situation in terms of the community,” said Charles Buckley, a defense attorney in the program. “To me, most of the people that we deal with are successful in our program.”
‘A pretty big carrot’
Vincent Woods, 35, of Vancouver is a graduate of the post-plea program. Woods served in the U.S. Navy from 2002 to 2007, including a 2004 deployment to Afghanistan.
After he was discharged, Woods grappled with chronic alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder, and he was arrested several times on suspicion of drunken driving. He completed other court programs, he said, but his issues inevitably returned.
“It never worked. I just kept drinking and carrying on,” Woods said. “It seemed like it came in waves.”
In 2017, Woods was sitting in the Clark County Jail after another arrest on suspicion of DUI when a local VA representative visited him to discuss the post-plea program.
The pipeline to VA services, including substance abuse treatment, housing assistance and employment connections, is viewed as an incentive.
“I think with most vets that have issues, if they’re not involved with a program like this, it takes a lot of effort on their part to make contact with the VA,” Hagensen said. “We have immediate access to just a number of different very, very good programs.”
But with past slip-ups in mind, Woods was hesitant. He questioned whether certain aspects of the program — including an initial nightly curfew — were worth the effort.
“A lot of times, if you’re a person sitting back and just saying, ‘Well, I really want to do as little as possible. OK, I’ll go for option No. 1, and I don’t want to go into veterans court because it’s too much of a commitment,’ ” Hagensen said. “Many of those people have already served whatever time they’re going to serve, and so it’s just a matter of a plea and they’re out.”
Depending on the severity of the potential punishment, some have opted to resolve their court cases in more traditional ways. The idea in those cases is that spending a few days on a work crew, for instance, is easier than completing what can be an 18-month therapeutic program.
“For a lot of people, they don’t see the long-term benefits from the get-go,” Robinson said. “They’re looking for what they get out of it, so some people look at it as, maybe, a get-out-of-jail-free card.”
Now, because the program offers defendants a chance to have their charges dropped, attitudes toward the veterans court might change.
“That’s a pretty big carrot for folks,” Hagensen said. “We’re going to see a lot of referrals because that’s a big enough motivation for them to come in here.”
After pondering what to do next, Woods opted to join the program. Even though it was only available on a post-plea basis at the time, a monthslong jail sentence hung over his head.
“This was sort of a last chance,” Woods said.
The veterans court consortium includes a district court judge, defense attorney, prosecutor, therapeutic specialty courts coordinator, probation officer and representative from the VA.
“These people have a genuine interest in how peoples’ lives turn out. You don’t just feel like a number being pushed through,” Woods said.
Woods started attending weekly court sessions, with an 8 p.m. curfew. At the meetings, the judge asked about his progress, and Woods provided paperwork showing he had been to treatment.
“It’s really intense when you first start,” Woods said. “If you have hiccups, this can all just reset. There’s always consensus and accountability, which was great in my case.”
Eventually, Woods’ nightly curfew was extended, probation officer visits subsided and court dates went from weekly to biweekly to monthly. Along the way, a counselor with the VA connected him with a job opportunity.
In December, 18 months after hearing about the veterans court from inside jail, Woods graduated from the program. He was excited but also nervous.
“The leash is coming off, right? I don’t have to be accountable,” Woods said. “It felt like I did something good.”
Off to a promising start
With the pre-plea program now available, Robinson is hopeful that candidates like Woods will be recognized sooner.
“The sooner we can get people opted into the program after arrest, the more likely it is that their behavior can change. When we get referrals months down the line, people become kind of used to their situation at that point. They may not be as willing to change,” Robinson said. “So if there’s no way to identify them, there’s no way to offer them the program, and I think now with the change with becoming a pre-plea program, I think more people will be aware of it.”
Early returns have been promising. The pre-plea veterans court, so far, has accepted one misdemeanor case, and a defendant facing a felony is scheduled to opt in today.
“Evolution in the criminal justice system is a slow, slow endeavor,” Buckley said. “We’re excited about the pre-plea program and the felonies coming in, and I think that we’ll see, as we have with Mental Health Court, some real successes.”