Veterans Court Taking Unique Approach Of Compassion Over Confinement

By Olivia Richard
Published: Friday, November 11, 2016 - 5:00am
Updated: Wednesday, November 23, 2016 - 9:29am

In a sixth-floor courtroom, in many ways everything is as you would expect. There is a robe-donned judge sitting behind the elevated bench of the law, a prosecutor and, of course, a defendant. But there’s one binding link everyone in the court shares, everyone is a veteran, and this particular court is anything but mundane, and it’s having unprecedented success.

Phoenix has been taking a progressive new approach to handling the hundreds of veteran cases that cross the desk of county courts every year. Maricopa City Prosecutor and Veterans Court pioneer Patricia George says the program takes a unique approach one of compassion over confinement.

“Veterans court takes every possible player willing to come to the table and works to look at the underlying issues” George said. “We get them the best treatment for the underlying issues, so they don't find themselves in trouble anymore.”

The program is just one of the various treatment courts but it’s offering veterans like former airman Brian Henshall a second chance.

“There's a lot of people here who really want to help you and they're looking to fix the person, and you leave in a better position than you came in.”

After serving as a navigation specialist in the United States Air Force, Henshall admits, he struggled when he returned home.

“I ran out of options. I was out on the street, just scraping together to get ahead. My housing situation was pretty bleak. I got in a little bit of trouble, and I ended up coming here to Vet Court.”

That bit of trouble is how Henshall ended up meeting retired Navy veteran Raquib Abdullah.

“I'm a grad of this court. I came through this court and I was charged with assault, and it was through this court that i was able to pay it forward,” Abdullah said.

One of the most unique aspects of the court program is that in addition to being connected to treatment specific programs and resources, each veteran is matched with a mentor, many of whom have gone through the program themselves.

“The whole idea is to be a battle buddy to the person coming in and out of court … because I know the trials and tribulations they’re going through,” said Abdullah, who worked as a Chicago police officer prior to becoming a mentor in the program.

Since the Phoenix version of the program was launched in 2012, it has seen recidivism rates of just 4 percent, which is unprecedentedly low when compared with the national average, which ranges from 67 to 77 percent, according to National Justice Institute research.

But the program is more than just a way to transition veterans out of the legal system; it’s a bridge to services and resources that may otherwise be unknown to many veterans.

“When I was there in the service, they explain that it's 20 years you gotta serve for you to retire and get benefits. So serving I didn't think serving 4 years was quite enough, but I qualified for medical benefits I didn't realize I had.” said Henshall who gained access to health care, housing and educational benefits with the assistance of veterans court mentors.

It’s all about the motivation provided by the mentors and support team, George said.

When each veteran graduates, “they get a certificate that indicates they have completed Veterans Court,” George said, “they also get a challenge coin, which is part of the military culture, it's a reminder of where they were and where they are and to keep looking forward and succeed in whatever you're doing.”

And moving forward is exactly what Henshall is doing. In fact, he is on track to graduate the program, there’s just one more step he has to complete.

“I'm still looking for work and if I can find a job I’ll be on a graduation path. I used to work avionics and got a degree in electronics, so I'm looking for something in avionics or maybe electronic technology. But, I'm willing to, if I can find something full time, I'm willing to clean offices or anything else really.”

The journey to progress is definitely not easy, Abdullah said, but it’s a hurtle that changes you and makes you a better and different person.

“I'm happy to say I'm happy. I'm not that angry sullen man I used to always be. I'm a giving individual, believe in the people it gives me some pleasure. And paying it forward all should always give you pleasure. Because it cost nothing for kindness and that's what I give.” Abdullah said.

There are currently 436 veterans courts around the country, 13 of which are in Arizona. Tempe, Pima County and Kingman are the most recent courts to adopt versions of the program within the state of Arizona.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been corrected to reflect the courts involved.

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