Amos Lee Gregory Jr. didn't get help for post-traumatic stress from his time aboard Navy attack submarines. He got by until the day he snapped.
He was headed to prison until he found a court just for military veterans. There, he finally received treatment and counseling, and also awakened an interest in art that is now his career.
Wednesday marked a big milestone after 18 months in Santa Clara County's veterans court, he "graduated." He tried to act nonchalant about it, but when the judge declared that Gregory had completed all his requirements and wiped his record clean, his fist pump gave away how much it means.
"Everything," he told me. "The court saved my life."
Veterans courts have been steadily expanding across California. Now, they're coming to the Sacramento region; judges and advocates in El Dorado County plan to start one on Jan. 1. The state Department of Veterans Affairs hopes 20 are established by July just as thousands of soldiers come home to California from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The basic idea is that if veterans, particularly those with psychological trauma from combat, get in trouble with the law, the courts should cut them some slack, connect them with services and give them every chance to stay out of prison.
Gregory, 42, could be a poster child for the court's success. He won an award, he talked to a statewide judges' conference Thursday night, and he's getting some buzz for organizing a project in San Francisco where veterans will cover an alley's walls with 200 murals about their experiences.
"Amos, you have done well," Superior Court Judge Stephen V. Manley told him. "You're giving back. You're helping other vets."
Manley met Gregory in the middle of the San Jose courtroom to give him a congratulatory hug. "You made it!" the judge said.
Manley had grown very tired of seeing veterans in his courtroom not make it. So three years ago, he decided on a different approach that focuses on treatment instead of punishment, and that brings federal and county agencies together to meet each veteran's individual needs.
His veterans court is now a national model. It is unlike any courtroom I've ever seen.
Every accomplishment passing a drug test, completing volunteer work, getting an apartment is applauded by everyone present, including lawyers, social workers, mentors and other vets. Defendants are asked if they're getting all the help they need. The judge hands out advice, encouragement and candy not prison time.
"You've got to believe in yourself. This program depends on you changing your life," Manley told vets before hearing cases Wednesday.
The court offers salvation to veterans like Robert Radivojec, 45, who is trying to overcome drug charges; Marco Concepcion, 26, a former Marine who came back from Iraq last year with PTSD, depression and a bad case of road rage; and Ronald Simon, 51, who has been homeless for most of the last six years and was facing five years in prison for forgery and shoplifting. He also graduated Wednesday so he can focus on getting his degree in biomedical engineering.
Manley's court, unlike many other veterans courts, takes all comers regardless of whether they saw combat or were dishonorably discharged, regardless of their crime. Of the 120 vets now participating, about 28 percent were involved in violent offenses and 59 percent in drug and alcohol cases, according to the court.
If vets successfully complete the program, all charges are dismissed, giving them a clean slate to seek work and housing, and a chance to get their lives back on track.
This year, 36 graduated. Only two failed.
Thorny issues in vet courts
The intent is noble. But the courts raise some tough issues. Should criminals get special treatment solely because they're veterans? Are the courts the best place to address their mental health issues?
I'm very sympathetic to those who volunteered to fight for us, who were repeatedly sent into life-and-death situations, who witnessed horrors most of us can only imagine.
But I agree with prosecutors who have reservations about allowing veterans involved in violent crimes to benefit from the courts. I'm not sure it's fair for them to escape punishment, and it might not be best for them, either. We don't know if they'll commit more crimes, how their stories will turn out.
And there are plenty of vets who need help without including those who have assaulted someone, or worse.
While the veterans court in Orange County, like the one in Santa Clara, accepts those charged with violent felonies, that's not the plan in El Dorado.
Its court formally endorsed Tuesday by the county's judges will start small, with three to five veterans a month. The main goal is to encourage vets to take advantage of programs, including benefits paid by Uncle Sam, easing the burden on the state and county.
"It's not a get-out-of-jail-free card," says Superior Court Judge Steven C. Bailey, who is leading the El Dorado effort. "It's an opportunity to provide increased services."
The judge and other supporters note that a substantial number of new veterans will need intensive intervention. One recent study suggested that nearly 20 percent of the 2 million troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress.
Regular courts are not prepared to deal with those issues, says Bill Schultz, El Dorado County's veterans affairs director. "We've just got our hands full," he says.
The first full-fledged veterans court in the nation started in early 2008 in Buffalo, N.Y. There are now 80 or so around the country.
California's veterans courts started in counties with large military communities. There are now a dozen up and running. Placer County is among those in the exploratory stage; Sacramento County isn't considering one.
"It would be a great goal to have it statewide," says Trevor Albertson, deputy secretary of the state Veterans Affairs Department.
Under state law, courts are allowed to consider psychological problems linked to combat in sentencing. If veterans are eligible for probation, judges can order them into treatment instead of prison.
Specialty courts are expanding
Veterans courts go further. They are the latest of California's "collaborative justice" courts for specific kinds of cases, such as domestic violence, elder abuse and mental health. Vet courts are modeled on drug courts, the best known of the specialty courts. Courts that divert defendants into treatment programs cost more to operate than regular courts, studies have found, but can save money over the long run by keeping people out of prison and reducing repeat arrests.
This past session, without a single "no" vote, the Legislature passed a bill to officially authorize veterans courts and thus help them expand more quickly across the state. While Assembly Bill 201 would have kept the courts voluntary, it did lay out goals and guidelines.
In August, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill. He said that cash-poor courts should decide on their own whether to start veterans courts. The state Judicial Council, which oversees the courts, also says it's a local decision.
While there are early reports of success, the jury is still out on veterans courts. An evaluation of the Santa Clara court including whether it reduces the rate of repeat arrests is due out next year.
Support for the courts is not unanimous across the criminal justice system.
The California District Attorneys Association insists that defendants plead guilty first and it adamantly opposes allowing violent criminals into veterans courts.
W. Scott Thorpe, the association's executive director, raises other questions: What level of combat should be required? How serious does a vet's post-traumatic stress or other problem have to be? Should a veteran get priority for treatment over, say, a child abuse victim?
Judge Manley in San Jose acknowledges the concerns, but says that limiting who can come into the court leaves out veterans who badly need help. If vets aren't treated for their underlying conditions, they will commit more violent crimes and crowd our prisons, he argues.
Some drug treatment groups say that veterans courts, like drug courts, "cherry-pick" low-level offenders who don't need treatment as much as more serious criminals. Besides, veterans and others who need treatment should be able to get it without getting arrested, says Daniel Robelo, a research associate in the Berkeley office of the Drug Policy Alliance.
"Is this really the best we can do for veterans?" he asks.
Maybe that's the most troubling question of all about veterans courts. Lots of new veterans will need help. They shouldn't have to go to court to get it.