Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Visit to Los Angeles County Veterans Court

I had been reading about experimental veterans courts throughout the United States – courts set up to deal with crimes committed by veterans suffering from service-related mental health problems.

After four years of writing online about PTSD, I was particularly interested in this recognition that untreated PTSD can lead to all kinds of anti-society behavior.

I did some research, and discovered that for 20 months Los Angeles County has had a veterans court modeled after other veterans courts.

Checking with the court clerk, I learned sessions were held Monday and Tuesday mornings in Department (courtroom) 42 of the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center.

I found the session I attended somewhat disorienting.  Although the courtroom opened at 8:30, the actual session did not begin until a few minutes after 10. 

And what I did not know until afterwards, when I did more research, was that Superior Court Judge Michael Tynan was handling cases from two different special courts simultaneously – the veterans court as well as another mental health-related court.

And what I suspected, but did not know until later, is that Judge Tynan had himself been in the military.  A Superior Court public affairs representative told me that Judge Tynan served as a Private First Class in the U.S. Army from 1958-1960.

One exchange between the judge and a handcuffed defendant new to Judge Tynan’s court went something like this:

Judge: What branch of the military?

Defendant: U.S. Navy

Judge: How many years did you serve?

Defendant: 5 1/2 years

Judge: Your rating?

Defendant: E5

Judge: Your job?

Defendant: Operator of satellite communications

Judge: Any combat?

Defendant: No land combatant as this was the Navy ... I received hazardous duty pay for being in a hazardous zone.

The judge later told the defendant that they were trying to get him into the Orange County VA program although they did not yet know if he were eligible.

After my visit, I spoke to the public defender assigned to the veterans court, who had been accompanied during the session by a social worker with the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department.

She explained to me that defendants must be referred from another court, and that the Los Angeles County Veterans Court is a collaborative court.  The DA participates in the decisions for defendants to be sent to the veterans court.

One thing I could tell during the session even without knowing this additional information is that Judge Tynan truly cared about the defendants appearing in front of him. 

This particularly impressed me because I had just read David Feige’s book INDEFENSIBLE: ONE MAN’S JOURNEY INTO THE INFERNO OF AMERICAN JUSTICE in which Feige describes how few of the judges in front of whom Feige represented clients seemed to care about the defendants.

I can only hope that these special veterans courts will be set up throughout all court systems in the U.S.  With more and more veterans of multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan likely to exhibit symptoms of PTSD in the coming years, these courts will be particularly important for “paying back” our veterans for their service.

My experience visiting a session of the Los Angeles County Veterans Court will be used to inform my proposed project “Solmon’s Justice.”  See www.SolomonsJustice.com if you want to know about this project.   

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