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Officials struggle to ID crimes too violent for vets courts

Thomas Delgado seemed a perfect candidate for a new veterans court program opening in El Paso County.

After battling for months against post-traumatic stress disorder, the Iraq war veteran ended a night of heavy drinking in September 2008 by hunkering down with a gun in his bathtub. His wife staved off tragedy by wresting the gun away from him, but her nose got broken in the process, landing Thomas Delgado in the criminal justice system, facing a charge of attempted murder.

"That definitely wasn't my husband at all," Shayla Delgado explains, repeating a story she told CNN in August about her ordeal and her fight to get her husband into veterans court and from there, probably a treatment program.

Delgado, however, was denied entry. His sentence wasn't nearly as harsh as it might have been — through mediation, he's actually managed to avoid prison time — but his case brings into sharp relief a question bedeviling veterans court officials and advocates nationwide: How much risk should you take, giving a veteran a second chance?

Jeff Lindsey, a senior deputy district attorney for El Paso and Teller counties, says that though the veterans court here will serve veterans charged with violent felonies, it will usually exclude ones like Delgado.

"If there's a gun involved, we're looking at that real carefully," Lindsey says.

Other exclusions from the court — which has taken 17 veterans since it unofficially opened in August — include sex offenses, felony child abuse or any crime resulting in serious injury or death. (The court's official opening came Dec. 17, after officials met all requirements necessary to start using money from a federal grant.)

The process could be even more selective in veterans courts that would open under a bill now before the U.S. Senate's Judiciary Committee. The bill proposes making $25 million available each of the next five years to start and run veterans court programs across the country, keeping out those accused of violent crimes.

West Huddleston, chief executive officer of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, says his Virginia-based organization, which represents all kinds of specialized court programs, is pressing for new language that doesn't so severely restrict eligibility. He's hoping for standards similar to those in El Paso County.

The country's first specialized drug court opened in 1989, and the number has ballooned to 2,369, Huddleston says. In 10 years, 267 special courts have opened with resources and treatment options to help people with mental health problems. Assuming the legislation is tweaked to allow some violent transgressions, Huddleston predicts veterans courts "will be as predominant as drug courts." Locally, Rep. Marsha Looper, R-Calhan, is working on a bill that would authorize judicial districts across the state to start veterans court programs — and that would enable them to tap into federal money if the U.S. Senate bill passes.

So the question of which arrestees pose too much risk is only growing in importance. Colorado Springs defense contractor Buddy Gilmore, a supporter of both the state and federal legislation, met with Huddleston and various lawmakers when he traveled to Washington, D.C., in November.

Like Huddleston, Gilmore is pressing to get veterans charged with violent crimes into the program:

"I'm a believer that's a whole lot better than just locking 'em up and throwing away the key."

lane@csindy.com

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