US & Canada

LA opens new criminal court for troubled veterans

Foltz Criminal Justice Center
Image caption The programme is limited to veterans charged with non-violent crimes

Los Angeles has convened a new court to handle the growing number of veterans suffering from stress and substance abuse who fall into trouble with the law. The BBC's David Willis meets some of the first to face the judge.

Delton Baker Jr still has the air of a military man.

He stands tall and erect and dresses in a black suit and tie. For eight years his home was the sprawling Camp Pendleton Marine Base near San Diego, California. From there, his regiment saw tours of duty in Grenada, Lebanon and Okinawa.

Then he fell sick, and that was when his problems began.

"I started to find that I had difficulties with my knees," Baker, 50, told the BBC.

"They were weak, and it was becoming more and more of a challenge to keep up with the training."

After his discharge from the military Baker was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Unable to find work, he turned to drink and drugs, and soon fell into trouble with the law.

"I got out of the service and it just seemed as though there wasn't anything for me to do," he said.

"So I fell by the wayside."

Non-violent offences

Baker was the first person to face a judge at the newly launched court for veterans in downtown Los Angeles. As a condition for participation in the programme, he had pleaded guilty to a drug possession charge.

The court, which will convene weekly, caters to former servicemen and women who are suffering from PTSD and other forms of mental illness, such as traumatic brain injury.

The voluntary programme will enable them to receive treatment instead of a jail term. The scheme, which is only open to veterans charged with non-violent crimes, has been tried in other parts of the US and deemed a success.

"This is long overdue," Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Tynan, who will preside over the veterans' cases, told the BBC.

Image caption An estimated 30% of US troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from some stress disorder

"These people served their country, they stuck their necks out for the rest of us, and some - because of their experiences - are more susceptible to drugs and alcohol and also to mental illness."

Depending on the nature of their crimes, veterans could be referred to treatment within the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) network of outpatient and clinical care facilities.

The veterans will be supervised for a set period of time; if they violate the court's conditions their penalties could be increased.

Former tank commander Alex Barlow, 48, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after his discharge from the US Marines Corps. He spent several years in Los Angeles's notorious Skid Row district, which has a large homeless population, and also turned to drink and drugs.

The second defendant to be brought before the veterans court, he too agreed to enrol in a VA programme after pleading guilty to petty theft. Afterwards, he said he looked forward finally to having a roof over his head.

Homeless veterans

"It's just good to feel that someone recognises I have a problem, rather than that I am a problem," he told the BBC.

The VA estimates that 131,000 former servicemen and women are homeless on any given night. In Los Angeles - the city thought to have the largest homeless population in the US - an estimated 8,000 veterans sleep on the streets.

VA social worker Sergio Antoniuk sees a clear link between the large number of veterans sleeping rough and figures suggesting that as many as 30% of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan could be suffering from some sort of stress disorder.

"It's vitally important that these people have their needs assessed, and we draw up treatment programmes so these people can be rehabilitated," he told the BBC.

Delton Baker Jr, meanwhile, had already enrolled in Alcoholics Anonymous before he came to the veterans court. The judge referred him to the VA for counselling and additional support. He left the court beaming.

"It's good to know that somebody cares for us," he said.

"Some of us here have been through a lot, and if you don't have someone to talk to, you bottle up your experiences and that's when the problems arise. I think a lot of us just need someone who will sit down and listen."

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