- Associated Press - Sunday, March 27, 2016

SIOUX CITY, Iowa (AP) - Standing at parade rest in a Woodbury County courtroom, Nick Sampson tells a judge about the progress he’s made in his treatment for mental illness.

The Sioux City Journal (https://bit.ly/1RzrV10 ) reports that he believes he’s been doing well while on pretrial release since his arrest last summer on a charge of reckless use of a firearm.

District Judge Jeffrey Poulson agrees, so much so that he approves Sampson’s request to visit his father out of state this summer. Then Poulson promotes Sampson, an Army veteran, to Phase 3 of the Woodbury County Veterans Treatment Court and gives him a military-style dog tag with the word “Honor” stamped on it.

The dog tag is symbolic of the work Sampson has done since his arrest. But the real reward, he said, is the alternative Veterans Court has presented him.

“I’d be in jail or prison,” Sampson said after his hearing.

Five military veterans took turns standing before Poulson last week, roughly the one-year anniversary of Woodbury County’s launch of Iowa’s first Veterans Court, a diversionary program designed to help keep military veterans in trouble with the law out of jail.

For veterans like Sampson, a former tank mechanic from 2006-09 whose mental illness was misdiagnosed for years before he was put into contact with a Veterans Administration doctor, and David Linton, it’s gotten them needed help.

“It got me in touch with benefits I didn’t realize I was entitled to,” said Linton, an Army generator mechanic from 1992-95 who was convicted in May of first-degree theft. Completing Veterans Court is a condition of his probation.

“It’s helped me be accountable,” he said. “Veterans Court is the only thing that kept me out of prison.”

Believing veterans often face unique problems that are at the root of their legal issues, a group of volunteers established the program, which currently has six participants. Though three other veterans have been terminated for noncompliance with program requirements, those involved said Veterans Court, which receives no public funding, is making a difference.

Every other Friday, the veterans appear before Poulson, who reviews their progress, compliments them on their achievements and holds them responsible if they’re failing to meet the court’s demands. A failed drug test, for example, can result in an immediate 24-hour stay in jail. Some will have their charges dismissed if they successfully complete the program. That structure, Poulson said, seems to benefit people who have a background in following orders.

“These are people who have been subject to discipline, and they respond to discipline,” Poulson said. “If you screw up, there’s an immediate response.”

Court procedures have been adjusted to that military setting. Defendants are called to stand front and center at parade rest before Poulson rather than sit at a table next to public defender Sharese Manker, who handles the defense of Veterans Court participants.

“I think we’ve made a big difference in quite a few people’s lives,” Manker said.

She talked about one veteran who was an IV methamphetamine addict. He received VA treatment, relapsed, then was placed into an alternative program and has since remained clean, making such an impression that he’s re-establishing contact with family members.

Assistant Woodbury County Attorney Terry Ganzel screens program applicants, who, if accepted, are put in contact with Becky Hess, veterans justice programs coordinator at the VA in Sioux Falls, who helps get them appointments and VA services.

“As complex a system as the VA is, I think it’s helpful for any vet to have help,” Hess said. “I help them navigate the system, get them the help they need and get in contact with the right people.”

Each veteran also is paired with a mentor, a volunteer with a military background who’s there to lend help — a ride to appointments, advice or just a sympathetic ear.

“We speak a similar language. It makes them more comfortable to speak to another veteran,” said mentor Jim Jones, of Sioux City, who retired after 30 years in the Navy.

What court officials have noticed, to their surprise, is the camaraderie that has developed among not only the mentors and court participants, but among the participants themselves. They’re not only focused on their own legal issues, but they help encourage one another.

“It’s nice you’re not going through this alone,” Sampson said of being able to talk with other veterans facing circumstances similar to his own.

Most important, Ganzel said, is that these veterans are getting the help that they need. Court officials often place other requirements, such as maintaining employment, on each veteran, with the goal of preparing them for success after they’ve completed the program.

“Pretty much whatever we come up with, we’re trying to get them on a path where they’re not dealing with the criminal justice system in the future,” Ganzel said. “Right now it is working. Like a lot of programs, it’s 20 years down the road where you find if it’s successful, but we’re giving them a chance.”

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Information from: Sioux City Journal, https://www.siouxcityjournal.com

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