- Associated Press - Thursday, December 25, 2014

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - A San Francisco court system that emphasizes rehabilitation over punishment for those accused of low-level crimes has created a weekly offshoot to hear cases involving veterans.

The Community Justice Center has put 60 veterans through its veterans court program since it was started about a year ago, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on Thursday (http://bit.ly/1JSf7m0).

It recently received a $350,000 federal grant that will allow it to move to the Hall of Justice and expand to handle crimes such as drug use and domestic violence that often affect people who have served on active duty.

San Francisco’s community court, like others in the country, uses judges - not juries - to send defendants to drug treatment, shelter and social services, instead of handing down fines and time in overcrowded jails.

But San Francisco Superior Court Judge Cynthia Ming-mei Lee said she helped create the veterans court after realizing that veterans were different from other defendants. “They stood up straight, said, ‘Yes ma’am, no ma’am,’ and there was no street talk. This was a different animal,” she said.

Veterans appeared before another judge, Braden Woods, at the court on a recent Wednesday. Woods noted whether they had passed a weekly drug test, calling for a round of applause for one man who had been-drug-free for four months.

“They’ve recognized that I am salvageable,” one veteran, Russell Phay, told the Chronicle.

Phay came out of the Army as a trained infantry combat soldier, but his tour ended just as his unit was headed out. He then had trouble readjusting to civilian life. He threatened his wife when she took their son to Colorado and ended up in prison. He came to San Francisco after serving his time.

“I need treatment, and I’ve gotten treatment,” Phay said. “I feel like people here understand the brotherhood.”

The program includes mentors who are veterans themselves. The court meets every Wednesday afternoon.

“I like to say if you want to see the best of the legal system, spend Wednesday afternoon in veterans court,” Lee said.

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Information from: San Francisco Chronicle, http://www.sfgate.com

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