H-SANTA MARIA

Nov 22, 2011 9:12 PM by Ariel Wesler

Veterans Court starts tomorrow in Santa Maria

The Central Coast's first court designated just for veterans will start tomorrow in Santa Maria.

An inaugural ceremony was held today at the Veterans Hall in Santa Maria. The court is geared toward vets who have committed non-violent crimes and have alcohol and drug problems or mental health issues. The program is an alternative to jail, aimed at helping veterans get back on their feet.

Program coordinators say this kind of court is much needed because a lot of veterans return home choose to self-medicate, turn to alcohol or drugs, and the problems get worse. This program is dedicated to reversing that downward spiral and giving local veterans a second chance.

It was an alternative way to kick start an alternative program designed to help heal our local veterans.

"We're trying to make sure we're doing everything we can to help these heroes re-engage and reconnect within our society," said Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Rogelio Flores.

The Santa Maria Veterans Treatment Court seeks to treat soldiers who committed crimes as a result of post traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury. Program leaders say more than half a million vets from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are battling some form of substance abuse.

"They have seen and survived unspeakable things, then tried to adjust to civilian life," said Santa Maria Mayor Larry Lavagnino.

Each vet will be paired with a trained mentor to guide them through the criminal justice process and get treatment, if needed.

"We've lost more veterans in the Iraqi and Afghanistan conflicts to suicide than to combat," Flores said.

The diversion program is a partnership between the court system and various county agencies.

"What helps me is helping other veterans and helping the veterans to understand," said Dr. Robert Hayes, a local clinical psychologist.

Veterans Treatment Court is open to all veterans involved in crimes, not just those who saw combat.

"I would suspect that in a year we're gonna be at capacity, probably within just a few weeks," Flores said.

The Veterans Treatment Court will debut Thursday at the Superior Court in Santa Maria. It will be held on the second and fourth Wednesday of each month. The program is modeled after Veterans Treatment courts in Buffalo, New York and Ventura County and is similar to Santa Maria's Drug Court, which has received national recognition.

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