Pilot Program Launched to Serve Veterans Facing Criminal Charges

Julie Traun, Director of Court Programs, Lawyer Referral and Information Service, The Bar Association of San Francisco

Appropriately, I visited the Superior Court’s new Veterans Justice Court (VJC) just after Memorial Day and the morning after I attended A.C.T.’s “Black Watch,” a powerful play created from interviews with veterans of the Scottish regiment’s deployment to Iraq. For three days, I thought a great deal about our veterans.

Our veterans, on the other hand, do not limit their thoughts of service to any three-day period; active duty serves as a constant reminder, too often impacting civilian life negatively – leading at times to criminal behavior.

PJ-LeeMindful of this impact, in April, San Francisco Superior Court Presiding Judge Cynthia Ming-mei Lee launched a new pilot program to work directly with veterans facing criminal charges.

The VJC meets every Wednesday afternoon and offers comprehensive assistance to our vets as they cope with drug addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and mental health problems.

Currently serving 20 vets on a pilot basis, the court hopes to expand to include more veterans, for the need is certainly greater than services currently available: annually, more than 1,000 veterans are arrested in San Francisco.

Judge-WoodsJudge Braden Woods presides over the VJC and with the assistance of Elizabeth (Liz) Brett, from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), private counsel, public defenders and prosecutors meet to craft much needed support for these vets.  Those eligible for VA benefits are referred to the VA for a treatment plan.  Those not eligible, work with case managers from the Department of Public Health to design treatment and/or refer veterans to the VA whenever he or she is eligible for assistance.

Creating a court just for veterans not only streamlines services, but it has created ways in which veterans  meet and secure much needed support from a variety of service providers – and importantly – each other.

This community shares similar experiences and the court’s message is made clear:  the court values their service, understands their unique circumstances and is here to help.

The VJC was launched less than two months ago, yet the potential for a positive outcome is apparent to anyone attending.

BASF’s Lawyer Referral and Information Services’ (LRIS)  Military Assistance Program (MAP) and attorneys with our Justice & Diversity Center are working on ways to collaborate with this new court, for the legal needs of our vets are not limited to the criminal courts.  The needs are many and varied.  We look forward to reporting on the progress of this new court and BASF’s commitment to remain ever-mindful of our veterans.

For more information, please email Julie Traun at jtraun@sfbar.org.
For more information about the Military Assistance Program, visit www.sfbar.org/map.