At its Sept. 19 meeting, the Marana Town Council voted 6-1 to contribute $20,000 to Regional Municipalities Veterans Treatment Court, which expanded to assist veterans throughout Pima County in 2012. Oro Valley approved a $75,000 contribution in July.
Since the expansion, the court has been funded by a $650,000 annual grant from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, or SAMHSA, which has assisted Oro Valley and Marana veterans at no cost to the municipalities. The SAMHSA grants ended Sept. 30, and the court asked local jurisdictions for contributions.
The funds requested from local jurisdictions would contribute to funding the program for another year. The court provides veterans with a range of services to help them better their lives without getting caught up in the court system.
“It’s a good cause, and certainly something that I think that we should help contribute towards,” said Marana Town Manager Gilbert Davidson, at the council meeting.
After assessing how many veterans Marana has sent to the program, plus comparing Marana’s population with all of Pima County, the town decided $20,000 was the appropriate amount to contribute.
Councilmember Herb Kai said he’d like to see Marana contribute $20,000 a year for the next four years, given the continued evidence of the program’s success. Kai said he thinks it’s important because it helps veterans with substance abuse issues.
The one dissenting vote was Councilmember Patti Comerford.
“The veterans that I work with won’t even go to that court,” she said at the meeting. “They don’t use it. They don’t like it. They think it’s a huge waste of funds.”
Comerford performs volunteer work with the homeless veterans outreach group Veterans On Patrol, and been told by the group that court doesn’t work for the veterans they’re helping. She thought the request of $75,000 would be better spent to help veterans in other ways.
Since 2012, 28 veterans from Marana and 23 from Oro Valley have been referred to veterans court. Of those 51 cases, only five opted to return their case to the original jurisdiction.
Oro Valley Magistrate George Dunscomb said some decide not to go through veterans court because they have to plead guilty to enter the program. Others don’t want to participate in the required services.
“For a good number of the veterans, it’s very helpful,” he said. “For some of these folks, they’re just not ready to deal with whatever their issues are.”
Veterans court only handles misdemeanor criminal charges for things like DUI, domestic violence, drug possession and shoplifting. Dunscomb said the cost of handling the veterans court cases would have cost Oro Valley between $2,000 and $2,500 each.
Twenty-five Marana and Oro Valley veterans have finished the program, and in most cases all their charges were dismissed. Fourteen participants left the program for various reasons, including plea agreements, failure to appear, jail sentences imposed by other courts and death, according to the court’s project coordinator Cassondra Sepulveda.
In the program, the veterans receive services at no cost, such as group or individual counseling in mental health, substance abuse, anger management, domestic violence, parenting skills, cognitive behavioral therapy, PTSD therapy, relapse prevention, coping skills and grief counseling. They are also eligible for assistance with transportation, housing and employment support. The cost of treatment varies, averaging between $2,000 to $3,000 for each participant.
“For many veterans, this would be a huge financial burden that may cause them to not do the treatment because they cannot afford it, and other things like food and bills take priority,” said Sepulveda in an email. “We take that strain off of their shoulders so they can focus more on getting better and improving their lives.”
Although that cost, at the higher end, would have been $84,000 for Marana and $69,000 for Oro Valley veterans in the last five years, the veterans court is taking a broader view. This is where the court’s 17 percent recidivism rate comes into play, considerably lower than the state average of 39 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.
Veterans court estimates in the last five years, it has saved Oro Valley and Marana a combined $462,000 by slashing recidivism rates. The court estimates that defendants not in veterans court repeat offend three times on average.
Of the Marana veterans who used the court, only three incurred new charges. The court calculates that if those who stayed out of trouble had reoffended three times, it would have cost an additional $216,000. That amount plus the original cost saves Marana $306,000, according to the court.
That same calculation would have saved Oro Valley $156,000, where only two veterans reoffended.
In a more conservative estimate, keeping with the state average of 39 percent recidivism rate, if the 51 Marana and Oro Valley veterans had found themselves back in court three times, that would come to a combined cost of $332,000.
Sepulveda added that there’s also a benefit to those who would have been hurt had the veterans not received the help they needed, particularly in domestic violence and DUI charges.
Veterans court began in 2009 through the efforts of Tucson City Court, its prosecutor and public defender, with services provided by Veterans Affairs. Shortly after veterans court began, three law students, who were veterans themselves, began working with the court, which evolved into James E. Rogers Veterans Advocacy Clinic.
Before veterans court, many veterans dealing with legal problems were doing “a life sentence on an installment plan,” said lawyer and veteran Matt Randle, who was part of the first wave of law students to help with veterans court.
“The reality is, with almost no exception, it is a far better outcome to do it through veterans court,” he said. If you have a veteran drinking in the park, for example, “society is not better by him getting a fine or jail time. Society is better by him being a contributing member.”
The court’s expansion added treatment for veterans who don’t qualify for VA benefits, working with La Frontera Behavioral Health of Arizona and Old Pueblo Community Services. The court also expanded the Rally Point Arizona mentor program, which provides one-on-one counseling.
“This is essential to getting the veterans to overcome their withdrawal, isolation and depression and better engage in treatment,” said Judge Michael Pollard, who founded veterans court. “We have seen over 600 men and women who have served their country and suffered therefrom.”