Deschutes County law enforcement, judges and attorneys say they want a specialty court for military veterans, but District Attorney Patrick Flaherty hasn’t been able to make it happen since he took office in 2011. Flaherty says he’s organizing the program and using the resources available, but John Hummel, who hopes to oust Flaherty from office in the May election, says Flaherty is going about it the wrong way.
Veterans courts take a different approach to criminal behavior, focusing less on incarceration and more on rehabilitation. Though there is strong support from local law enforcement agencies, there is little money to get the program running and not enough judges to hear the cases, Flaherty said. Hummel claims Flaherty isn’t looking in the right places for the money, and says if he was district attorney he’d approach the state to fund a local vets court.
“If it was a priority, Patrick would have elevated the issue and worked with the entire community to make it happen,” Hummel said. “Any time you do a major initiative, there are going to be roadblocks. According to Patrick, nothing is ever Patrick’s fault. He’s the leader; it’s his fault.”
Flaherty says not having enough presiding judges is the greatest barrier to implementation. The county already has a family drug court, a mental health court and a domestic violence program.
“Lack of the judicial resources is the only obstacle we’ve encountered,” Flaherty said. “Support for the program is very powerful. We’ve been working for the last three years to do what we can with what we have.”
Veterans court would be run in much the same manner as Deschutes County’s family drug court, Flaherty said. Drug court is designed for people with serious drug problems who commit crimes and meet other criteria. A veterans court would accept people who meet similar criteria, Flaherty said. The purpose of specialty courts is to get participants help they need — substance abuse treatment, counseling, treatment for undiagnosed mental illnesses, and other assistance — to give them a better chance at avoiding jail time and keep them from reoffending.
“It’s for offenders who didn’t have a problem before serving their country,” Flaherty said. “Until they left the military they weren’t criminals or drug addicts.”
In the absence of funding for a vets court, Flaherty said his office is working with the Sheriff’s Office, the Bend Police Department, Deschutes County jail staff and volunteers with the Central Oregon Veterans’ Outreach to get veterans the help they need.
“We have a veterans intervention strategy that works with defense counsel and the jail to determine, when offenders are booked into jail, if they’re eligible for veterans’ benefits,” he said. “The most vexing issue is identifying veterans because many of them have a fear of being identified by law enforcement as a veteran.”
He said some veterans feel threatened by authority figures or don’t want to identify as a veteran because they don’t want to be labeled. He said identifying vets helps first responders understand why they may act different when confronted, keeping both the citizen and the officer safer.
There are four Oregon counties with veterans courts. Marion County Circuit Judge Vance Day, who helped implement a veterans court in his jurisdiction, agreed that Deschutes County doesn’t have enough judges to support a new specialty court.
“(Flaherty) spent thousands of dollars to send one of his deputy district attorneys, Eric Marvin, to Vet Con (a vets court conference held in Washington, D.C.). That’s commitment,” he said. “Eric has been here to see how our vets court is run and has been in constant contact with us. (Flaherty) will get a vets court going; it just takes time.”
Flaherty said Hummel’s claims that he could get funding from the state are false. Flaherty was prepared to apply for a federal grant to fund veterans court — one he felt Deschutes County could get — but the application required endorsement from the judges who would be trying the cases, and he couldn’t get buy-in from the bench.
Deschutes Circuit Judge Alta Brady in February said the problem with implementing a veterans court is about money and time.
“Everyone is working to capacity now, and we don’t have time on the docket,” she said. “We would love to see an expansion of specialty courts, but we need another judge on the bench.”
Hummel said Flaherty’s failure to get funding stems from his desire to “push things through on his own.” Hummel believes he’d be successful with a team approach in getting funding from the state.
“If one person goes to Salem and asks for funding, they’re not as likely to get it,” he said. “If you go to the budget writer with 40 people — city council members, commissioners, judges, neighborhood associations, business leaders — and a plan, you’re much more likely to get funding. I’m not guaranteeing success, but you’ve got to go about it in the right way to maximize your chances.”
Day said veterans court in Marion County began in October 2012 and was staffed for a full year by volunteers because the county didn’t have money in the budget to support it. After a year of success, organizers applied for a federal grant and received $347,000 to continue to fund the specialty court. Day said he admires Hummel’s conviction, but doesn’t think getting state funds is realistic.
“In an era where funds are scarce it’s very difficult to get state funding for specialty courts,” he said. “It would be very difficult for one county to push the Legislature to give money when they don’t even have a program up and running, and Deschutes County can’t get the program running without another judge.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0376, firstname.lastname@example.org