Fresno court seeks to rehabilitate, not incarcerate, veterans

Judge Hilary Chittick will preside over the Veterans Treatment Court because of her experience with both the Fresno County Drug and Behavioral Health courts.
Judge Hilary Chittick will preside over the Veterans Treatment Court because of her experience with both the Fresno County Drug and Behavioral Health courts. Fresno Bee file photo

Robert Henry Reed Jr. pledged allegiance to the United States flag wearing handcuffs and a red jumpsuit.

He was in custody for his fourth driving under the influence violation and for violating his probation. Reed said he had been sober for eight months before this incident.

Now he is worried he will lose everything.

But Fresno County has a new court that may be his best road to success and sobriety – a Veterans Treatment Court.

The program aims to rehabilitate veterans through treatment rather than incarceration. It connects veterans like Reed, who served in the Navy, with health programs and veteran mentors during their probation periods.

The new court’s first hearing occurred Friday afternoon, in a room that featured the five flags of the military branches alongside the national and California state flags.

Fresno County joins 25 California counties, including Tulare and Madera, with such treatment courts, where veterans are examined by judges who are familiar with post-traumatic-stress disorder, substance abuse and the treatment services available.

“We want to do what’s best for veterans and keep the public safe,” said Steve Wright, Fresno County assistant district attorney. To do so, the court must decide with every case what punishment is appropriate, how it will ensure public safety and how to attempt rehabilitation.

The answer is a post-plea program. Only eligible veterans who admit to a misdemeanor or felony can participate in treatment programs that the Department of Veterans Affairs provides during their probationary periods. The court will drop charges if the veterans successfully complete their treatment programs.

Criteria for eligibility include being honorably discharged from a combat position.

Wright said once the Superior Court judges, defense lawyers and prosecutors become familiar with the program, about 35 to 40 veterans will be handled by the court at any given time.

He predicts the court will reshuffle hearings rather than take up extra time. All veterans will be seen in one room by a judge with specialized knowledge and access to the tools available to veterans instead of being randomly assigned to judges by last name.

That person is Superior Court Judge Hilary Chittick. She presides over the new court, which meets every other Friday. It alternates with Behavioral Health Court, which Chittick started to treat and rehabilitate those in court with mental illnesses.

The new court synthesizes her experience with behavioral health and drug courts because it, too, will focus on treatment and prevention rather than merely imprisonment.

The Veterans Treatment Court also includes a mentor program that pairs veterans with those facing probation. Chittick, who has visited other veterans courts throughout California, attributes some of the court’s success to the mentor program.

Chittick said one challenge the court faces is dealing with individuals who interact in multiple systems. The Veterans Treatment Court makes sense to her because it coordinates the criminal court with the VA for the veterans’ benefit.

But Veterans Treatment Courts do not grant preferential treatment. The defendants must plead guilty and complete a probationary period like others convicted of misdemeanors and felonies.

Chittick said the preferential treatment argument relies on two questions: Why should courts recommend treatment as opposed to punishment? Why should courts single out veterans?

“One, we owe it to our vets: We damaged them; we should work to put it right,” Chittick said. “Two, treatment is more effective at preventing crime in the future. We have to deal with what causes crime now to prevent it later.”

District Attorney Lisa A. Smittcamp was also present at the hearing. She pledged to establish the veterans court during her campaign for office in 2014.

Smittcamp said the new court will be a safe place for veterans who want a fresh start but are too ashamed to admit their status because it could dishonor the military.

JoAnna Kroeker: 559-441-6247, @jobethkroeker

Grand opening

On June 30, the Veterans Treatment Court will have a ceremonial grand opening in the Jury Assembly Room of the Sisk Building. Those in attendance will watch the color guards of all the military branches and listen to speakers.