Instead of jail, veterans get a chance of rehabilitation, clear record through specialty court

With more than 50 people looking on in a second-floor courtroom at the Reno municipal courthouse, Judge Shelly T. O’Neill presided over a graduation ceremony of the CAMO-RNO Veterans Court, looking a bit like a proud teacher as she passed out certificates and invited graduates to speak.

Four graduates completed the program last week after 12 months of working with the court to reach a level of sobriety, recovery, and stability. In the last year, 24 veterans and active-duty military personnel have been a part of a new program where they work to turn their lives around and receive treatment for their issues instead of spending time behind bars for misdemeanor offenses.

“We are not a punitive court,” said specialty court defense attorney Henry Sotelo. “In fact, all the data and knowledge that has been gathered about treatment courts is that penalizing clients should be the very last thing we do when a client needs guidance; and that any penalty meted out should be exercised on the side of caution and swiftly.”

CAMO-RNO graduation ceremony, held in the courtroom of the Hon. Shelly T. O’Neill at the Reno Municipal Court, on Tuesday, October 15, 2019. Photo by Andrea Laue.

Veterans courts in Las Vegas — and now Reno — are part of a growing veterans court movement. The Veterans Administration counted 25 such programs in 2009 and 461 of them in 2016.

Although federal data show trends have shifted over the past few decades and the incarceration rate among veterans is now lower than the incarceration rate among non-veterans, the courts are aimed at keeping veterans off the streets, out of prisons and away from suicide.

In the most recent (2018) point-in-time (PIT) count of people experiencing homelessness, 37,800 veterans nationwide were on the street. According to the 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, 16 veterans commit suicide every day.

Veterans or active-duty military personnel are eligible for the Reno program if they have committed misdemeanor offenses, which are punishable by up to six months in county jail and/or a $1,000 fine. Although participants have to check-in three times a week, continue counseling and remain sober, the prosecution and the defense work together and keep them from breaking any laws in the future.

Each person’s case is processed and weighed according to the military service of the individual, the charge against them, if there is any substance abuse and mental health history. The specialty court helps with different aspects of case management such as housing, training, and employment, while at the same time treating various issues such as substance abuse, mental health and legal problems. 

A study by the National Institute of Health found that veteran treatment courts had made a difference in the well-being of veterans who participated, with 10 percentage points more veterans having their own housing at the end of the program compared to the beginning. Participation also brought a 1 percentage point increase in employment and a 12 percentage point increase in receiving VA benefits.

CAMO-RNO graduation ceremony, held in the courtroom of the Hon. Shelly T. O’Neill at the Reno Municipal Court, on Tuesday, October 15, 2019. Photo by Andrea Laue.

The Veterans Court in Reno just finished its first year of operation and was made possible by a law passed in the 2009 legislative session giving veterans a different option than prison. The specialty court has strong ties with the Department of Veterans Affairs and volunteers, many of whom are veterans themselves.

Washoe County has nine different specialty courts, including the veterans court, that are part of the Second Judicial District Court. They include adult drug court, diversion court, family treatment court, felony DUI court, medication-assisted treatment court, mental health court, prison reentry court and youth offender diversion court. 

Before someone is able to graduate, he or she must co-create an aftercare plan with the help of the court. The plan must cover having an income, housing, psychiatric treatment, sobriety, medical health, and social life.  

“Not to say that ‘conventional courts’ don’t or can’t adopt some or all of these techniques,” Sotelo said. “However, CAMO-RNO was created specifically and from the ground up as a court to deal with High Risk/High Needs Offenders with the specific task of using hands-on techniques and supervision to rehabilitate and empower these offenders.”

Christopher Hazlett-Stevens, City Attorney and Prosecutor for CAMO-RNO, embraces a program graduate during the CAMO-RNO graduation ceremony held in the courtroom of the Hon. Shelly T. O’Neill at the Reno Municipal Court, on Tuesday, October 15, 2019.

Instead of attending a traditional retirement celebration from the Navy with ships and fireworks, one of the participants — whom the court asked The Nevada Independent not to identify by name because his records will be sealed — was graduating from veterans court. He did not dress in uniform but opted for a casual, clean-cut look along with a boutonniere provided by the court. 

He told the audience that he spent almost 20 years in the Navy, held a leadership role and loved his time there, but didn’t realize that he had a problem until this specialty court was in front of them. He said his time in the program would conclude one of the best years of his life. 

After the graduates spoke, the attorney for the prosecution sent the veterans on their way. All of their charges have been dismissed and their records sealed. 

Veterans court graduate wears boutonniere
Graduates wore boutonnieres and received commemorative coins and certificates at the CAMO-RNO graduation ceremony, held in the courtroom of the Hon. Shelly T. O’Neill at the Reno Municipal Court, on Tuesday, October 15, 2019. Photo by Andrea Laue.

“This story was updated at 9:00 AM on 10/22/19 to correct a statistic on the rate of veteran suicides.”