Locked and loaded 

Two weeks of jail numbers suggest new vets court will be busy

In the past two weeks, arrestees getting booked at El Paso County's jail have had to answer one extra question: "Have you ever served in the U.S. military?"

In the survey, conducted to provide data for a new veterans court program, jail officials found that nearly 1 in 6 had a history of military service. In a single week in late June, 76 out of 462 arrestees reported having a military background.

Terrance McWilliams, who was the top enlisted soldier at Fort Carson before he went to work for El Pomar Foundation two years ago, says he was surprised by the numbers, though not in the way you might guess.

"Believe it or not," he says, "it was a little lower than I expected."

No one knows how many veterans will find space in the specialized court when it starts up Aug. 1 in Colorado Springs. But McWilliams and others say the aim is to find an alternative to stuffing vets behind bars.

"Think about it," he says. "When you spend a year in an environment where the adrenaline is constantly running, and then you are back here where no one is shooting at you — it's kind of difficult to bring that adrenaline level back to normalcy."

The veterans court, modeled on similar programs in New York and elsewhere, will try to identify current and former soldiers whose criminal activity is tied to combat experiences. Robert Alvarez, a contractor with the Army Wounded Warrior Program at Fort Carson, says the goal is to use the program to get these vets mental health treatment, and also the housing, employment and services they need to function in society.

"These are cases where people are changed by their service to this country," Alvarez says, noting how painful it's been to read letters from parents and friends of veterans who've seen their loved ones act out because of post-traumatic stress disorder or a brain injury.

In addition to receiving mental health treatment from local therapists, McWilliams says, participants will be paired with mentors with military experience who will help them reintegrate into society.

The program will be funded by a five-year, $2 million federal grant that will also be used to fund a similar program planned for Denver. (That program is still in the conceptual stage.)

The plan at first is to target veterans who are charged with felonies, though it could later be broadened to include those charged with misdemeanors. They will take plea deals allowing them to avoid doing time as long as they stick with the program. Screening to find people who could benefit will start at the jail, though local prosecutors will ultimately decide who gets in.

A full-time program manager will help keep track of participants, and the cases will be handled in the courtroom of District Court Judge Ronald Crowder, who served 38 years as a combat officer with the Army, both active-duty and reserve.

Crowder says he expects as many as 300 felony cases each year could involve veterans who fit the criteria for the program, and he hopes to see it expand quickly to include county court cases, where you find misdemeanors and traffic offenses.

"The idea is to stop things early," he says.

The main limitation, Crowder adds, will be financial: "If this thing gets going, it's clear it will take a lot more than one full-time person."


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