By Callie Shanafelt
California Health Report
San Mateo County Superior Court Judge John Grandsaert started Northern California’s
newest veteran’s treatment court last July. (Photo: Callie Shanafelt/California Health Report)
San Mateo County’s Veteran’s Treatment Court looks like a typical criminal courtroom on a recent morning. Three men in orange jumpsuits sit in a holding area in the front near two bailiffs as the session begins. A row of lawyers and court staff, all wearing business suits, has case files at the ready. At the back of the room, social workers and defendants sit in army green and gray theater-style seats.
But what happens at Veteran’s Treatment Court is anything but typical. Modeled on drug treatment courts, this court provides extra support and treatment opportunities for military veterans.
San Mateo Judge John Grandsaert started Northern California’s newest veteran’s treatment court last July.
First, he had to convince the county that the court would not mean an additional hit to the county budget. In the past five years, California trial courts have lost nearly one billion dollars to budget cuts – an unprecedented amount. San Mateo Court has cut its total staff by 30 percent, even as caseloads increased after reforms to the state prison system.
“It’s not a good environment for starting new courts in light of the terrible budget squeeze that we’re under,” Grandsaert said.
But he was able to create the Veteran’s Treatment Court by limiting admission to the program and tapping into the resources of veteran support networks.
Judge Grandsaert sits behind a raised corner desk framed by the U.S. and California flags when court is in session. The state seal hangs above his head. He speaks in a soothing and encouraging tone to each veteran that comes before him—reminiscent of how a supportive father would speak to his son.
In fact, Grandsaert has a particular passion for veterans because his own son is in the Air Force and he spent 17 years in the Army reserve. He thinks vets deserve special treatment in the criminal justice system.
“Veterans have already sacrificed part of their life in service to their country,” Grandsaert said.
There are more than 23 million vets in the United States, according to the Veteran’s Administration. The VA also estimates that one third of the homeless population has served in the military. Vets aren’t more likely to be arrested, but those who are in the criminal justice system are more likely to have problems with addiction.
Vets in the San Mateo Court have already been convicted of a crime. They usually end up on Grandsaert’s radar because of a probation violation or referral. Defendants agree to be closely monitored during probation. In exchange, they get extra support and opportunities through the court.
If they successfully complete the program, Grandsaert expunges their record and forgives their fines.
He estimates it will take vets 18 months to three years to go through the program. If they don’t progress with their treatment, they can be removed.
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