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Sonoma County’s veterans court takes service into account

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About 30 veterans — young, old, men, women — sat on the wooden benches in Department 8 at the Sonoma County Courthouse Friday afternoon, waiting for veterans court to begin.

George Morrow, 28, was one of them.

Twenty minutes into the proceedings, Commissioner Jennifer Dollard called his name.

“Mr. Morrow, good afternoon,” she said.

After the administrative duties finish — scheduling future appearances, talking about what’s coming up next in his DUI case — she does something a little bit different than in most criminal proceedings: She checks in on how he’s feeling.

Veterans court, like other special courts that exist in the county focusing on the homeless, mental health, DUI and drugs, concentrates on a segment of the population that runs into trouble with the law, and acknowledges special circumstances to consider during prosecution.

“I’ve had feedback today that you’re plugged into treatment,” Dollard said. “That you’re not only doing that, but you’re working full time, and not only working full time, but you have a new job? And that you have a new car?”

Morrow smiles slightly, and laughs.

“And what is that?” Dollard said.

“A Honda Civic,” Morrow said.

“Yellow, red?” she asked.

“No, blue. Navy colors,” he said.

“OK, just checking.” Morrow said, smiling.

The once-a-month court began in November, and Mike Perry, chief deputy public defender, played a key role in it.

“The judge and prosecutor understand the specific needs of veterans,” Perry said.

“The crime is often a manifestation of some trauma that happened in service. If not treated, folks end up getting into trouble. We realize that and we deal with it.

“People try to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Of course there are consequences to that.”

He said the jail population is typically about 10 percent veterans. Some are from the Vietnam War era but many are younger vets who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Twenty to 30 felony and misdemeanor cases are called each court session, but rarely involve sex or violent crimes. The program’s goal is to get treatment for veterans charged with probation-eligible crimes. No mandatory prison cases are allowed in veterans court.

It appears to be gaining popularity among the estimated 28,500 vets who live in Sonoma County.

“It’s growing faster than we thought,” Perry said. “There are a lot more veterans out there than anticipated.”

Outside court, Morrow said that after leaving the Navy in October 2010, he was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“But I hate saying that,” he said. “You think guns and all this stuff, but that is not at all what triggered my PTSD. I was holding myself to such a high standard — really high, all the time — and then, now, feeling like that standard should still exist, but it doesn’t.”

Alcohol, he says, is his “oblivion button,” which is how he landed here, at the urging of his attorney Izaak Schwaiger, a Santa Rosa lawyer and decorated Marine who handles a lot of veterans’ court cases.

“Without Izaak, a lot of us wouldn’t be here,” Morrow said. “Without him, I’d probably be in the gutter.”

Morrow is also here because of Kevin Wright, the Veterans Justice Outreach specialist for the VA. He meets with veterans charged with crimes and determines if they could benefit from either drug or mental health treatment, or anger management.

“We’re calling it probation on steroids,” said Anne Masterson, deputy district attorney for the county.

“They may not avoid jail altogether (but) there is a preference for treatment over jail.”

Masterson became involved because she’s a combat veteran from the Iraq war, an Army civil affairs officer in the “second rotation” in Iraq in 2004.

“I guess I feel like I have a better perspective on what a veteran’s experience might have been whether it was combat-related or not,” Masterson said. “There’s a certain sense of brotherhood or sisterhood when you’re in the military.”

Staff Writer Paul Payne contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @SeaWarren.

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