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City Court Helps Struggling Veterans

Cities around the country have been struggling with a glut of veterans in the court system, many for minor crimes like DUI or sleeping in a public place because they're homeless. Advocates say veterans often have unique circumstances that deserve attention, so in Mansfield, they decided to try something new: set up a separate city court just for veterans. From Military To Municipal Court On a weekday morning, about a dozen veterans gather in a small courtroom in downtown Mansfield. Not for sentencing, but to tell magistrate Phil Naumoff how they're doing. Veterans of different ages and service branches step up to a microphone to tell Naumoff about their jobs, families and roads to recovery. It's sharp contrast from Mansfield Municipal Court three years ago. Naumoff says criminal dockets were overflowing with sad cases of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. "So many were coming back untreated from their action overseas. There were a lot of things we weren't familiar with, just like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder," Naumoff says. So Judge Jerry Alt looked to Buffalo, New York, which is credited with starting the first veterans-only court in the nation. After getting the blessing of the VA and winning a state grant, Alt started the veterans docket in 2009. "Well first of all, it's the first court I've ever conducted where I'm called sir by almost every defendant." More importantly, Alt says, it's working: they recently won another state grant to expand their court and another in Youngstown. Alt says he runs vets court similar to other special dockets like drug court and mental health court: put people with similar problems together, make it a less-intimidating atmosphere, and offer treatment options instead of incarceration. "What really differs is that we see them twice a month, they see the judge and talk to me twice a month. And I think it really helps special dockets that they have that interface with the system." Alt also points veterans toward the VA to take advantage of benefits like health care and career services. Volunteers Lending A Hand In addition to bi-weekly sessions with a judge and access to probation officers, veterans are also assigned a volunteer mentor. Lori Fourhman works with about a half-dozen veterans at any given time. She says most people are supportive, but she has heard from critics who say veterans don't deserve special treatment. "They have stepped away from their families, stepped away from their children, stepped away from their futures to serve their country, to serve those same people who say you don't deserve this. They have every right to say that, and they've defended that right," Fourhman says. Nathan Pierce is a Mansfield native and an eight-year veteran of the Air Force. He served in Iraq in 2006 and got his second DUI earlier this year, not long after learning he'd be deployed again to Afghanistan next year. Two DUIs normally means 30 days in jail, but by signing up for AA and veterans court, Pierce avoided time behind bars. "It's not like we're getting special treatment or anything. But it's nice that people can actually help those that have helped others." He still has a year to go in the veterans court, and will be expected to keep in touch with a probation officer even when he's overseas. He could have some company. Since the Mansfield and Buffalo courts opened, at least 46 others have followed in 20 states around the country. More courts are in the works, including a possible veterans court in Franklin county. Backers here say the details haven't been finalized.