SALT LAKE CITY — About four years ago, Rick Schwermer got a phone call from someone with the U.S. government asking how many veterans were in Utah's drug courts.
He sent an email to the state's judges who preside over the drug courts and received several responses indicating they didn't believe there were any veterans in the drug court system.
"One of the things that became apparent is it wasn't something we looked for," said Schwermer, assistant Utah State Courts administrator. "It wasn't a characteristic we knew we needed to treat differently or an experience we needed to respond to differently. But, of course, what we had was quite a few veterans in our drug courts."
Now, the Utah State Courts are working to implement veterans treatment courts in both 3rd and 4th sistrict courts. These courts will be similar to the other "problem-solving courts" already in place — mental health and drug courts — that aim to go beyond punishment by providing treatment and long-term solutions for those facing criminal charges while struggling with such issues.
"Their experience as veterans really does bring with it different problems than other drug court and mental health court participants have," Schwermer said. "They have a higher incidence of co-occurring disorders, which means they might have (post-traumatic stress disorder) as well as a substance abuse disorder. So that's why the approach is important."
He said the court is asking questions "correctly" to better identify veterans because many who have served in the military think "veteran" solely means those who served in World War II or Vietnam. The courts will also build in a mentor system to pair veterans who land in court with other veterans who can connect to them and help them as they navigate treatment and the court process.
This was an "instinctive" decision that mirrors other veterans courts, but Schwermer said it speaks to the military's "buddy system" and simply makes sense. There is research that shows there are benefits to treating veterans separately from other mental health or drug court participants, he said.
"Their experiences and their perspectives in life can be significantly different," Schwermer explained.
The 5th District Court does not have a specific veterans court but has started to dedicate time to address cases involving veterans within its existing mental health court program.
"We owe a great debt to them," 5th District Judge John Walton said. "It's not about giving anybody a free pass. It's about considering what may have happened to them during their service."
While there are certain kinds of charges that wouldn't qualify for the separate court, the judge said the goal is to help those veterans who can be redirected and helped with treatment.
"What we're trying to accomplish is to pay respect to our armed serves and our veterans by focusing on treatment and seeing how we can help them," Walton said. "And then, when they perform well and do well in treatment, give them the reward of taking their case out of the criminal justice system."
Rick Davis, trial court executive for the 5th District Court, said the decision was made to create a separate court calendar to help veterans after some urging from those in the community. Several entities approached the court, he said, including veterans groups, behavioral health centers and the Washington County Attorney's Office.
"I think there was a recognition that we have a lot of veterans that have served and that are serving, and they come back to the area or come back from their assignments and they're having some struggles with different issues, and sometimes they run into trouble with the law," Davis said.
Both Provo's 4th District Court and Salt Lake City's 3rd District Court are in the process of creating veterans courts, Schwermer said. The 4th District's veterans court should get underway sometime this year.
Judge Samuel McVey, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps, will preside over the court in Provo. In a report from the courts, McVey said he understands the veterans' perspective.
"I speak their language and know where they've been," the judge said in the report. "My role is to not only make sure they toe the line and to apply sanctions when necessary, but to motivate them."
Defense attorney Clayton Simms said he is familiar with the concept of veterans courts and praised the state's efforts to implement them.
"Veterans court is really important because these are people that contributed to society, and we owe them a debt," he said.
Simms said separating veterans into their own court also speaks to the camaraderie and shared experience often associated with those who served in the armed forces.
"They have that common interest there," he said, adding that veterans courts, like the other problem-solving courts, are a smart way to try to solve crime.
"They're a great resource to get people on the right track," Simms said. "There is a certain element of punishment to it, but you're also trying to heal that person and solve that problem and prevent future crimes."