San Diego is one of a handful of counties nationwide helping veterans get treatment and a new start after getting into trouble with the law.
The San Diego Veterans Court in the city of El Cajon is the place where veterans who are paroled and accepted into the program come for bi-weekly hearings.
Duane Patton, a retired marine, graduated from the program this week after facing incarceration for unlawful discharge of a weapon and attempted suicide. He says the treatment he received through Veterans Court changed his life.
“This treatment court is based on treatment itself. It’s designed so you can get counseling and mentors. You get the things needed to make you better,” Patton told NBC 7.
Patton is one of 25 veterans who have used the program to overcome prison time for crimes ranging from domestic violence, fights and driving under the influence. Without it, the criminal records could have become indelible.
“In a case where crime would certainly justify prison if the right findings are made, they come to this court and they are in treatment – not prison. That’s not available to every single defendant, not because we are favoring veterans but because the resources aren’t there for non-veterans,” San Diego Judge Roger Krauel told NBC 7.
San Diego County started its program nearly two years ago, after the county started to address the growing need. Among the 30,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, 100 veterans a week enter San Diego county jail.
The program exists on grants and donations and the VA of San Diego houses many of the veterans during treatment.
Judge Krauel says he believes the program has promise and he hopes other states take notice.
“I will tell you, I feel a lot better about turning people back who are law abiding than in other kinds of cases because the resources aren’t there to deal with folks,” Krauel explained.