New veterans court on the way

Feb. 01, 2014 @ 02:55 PM

Durham County District Court Judge Nancy Gordon is a person of passion, especially when she sees people in need.

That’s why Gordon is leading an effort to create a veterans court in Durham.

The court would focus exclusively on war veterans, some of whom commit misdemeanors, such as trespassing and shoplifting, because of mental problems created by combat.

To Gordon’s mind, veterans have served the nation, and courts should do what they can to help them.

By year’s end, Gordon hopes to have a separate veterans’ court docket that would hold defendants accountable for their crimes, but match them with services to help them heal. Why should the average citizen care about that? Because by keeping veterans out of jail, taxpayers will save money, and veterans will be less likely to victimize the community, she said.

“These are people who served to protect our rights and our country,” Gordon said. “They come back, and many of them have problems. And we say: ‘Go live your life.’ But they can’t without help.”

A committee that includes Gordon and military veterans has met since July to hammer how details of how the court will work, but Gordon’s goal is to have it operating by Nov. 11 - Veterans Day.

An important part of veterans’ court will be to match the defendant with a trained mentor who has a military background and is in a position to help the veteran get back on his feet. Defendants would get physical and mental health services instead of jail, but those accused of violent offenses or drug trafficking would not be eligible.

“The theme is veterans who are addicted or who have mental health and other issues arising from combat-related, traumatic brain injury,” Gordon said. “The court model provides a camaraderie that taps into the unique aspects of veterans.”

The court would be the second in the state – the other is in Harnett County – and one of 150 in the nation.

The protocol in most veterans’ courts is different. A defendant is called by rank, and court often opens with the Pledge of Allegiance.

“There are judges who will call them to attention, and they stand at parade rest in court,” Gordon said. “So you’re tapping into part of what brings them there, and part of what can be used to help them.”

Paying for the court will require grants at first, but Gordon hopes the state eventually will pick up the tab.

But Gordon is working to overcome stumbling blocks, because she believes the effort will be good for veterans and citizens.

“We pay an enormous amount to jail people,” she said. “It makes more sense to help them lead productive lives, so they’re not committing crimes, and our taxes will be better used.”

Gordon said that one of five incarcerated veterans was homeless the year before their arrest, and many suffer war-related trauma.

“We have a lot of untethered veterans in Durham,” Gordon said. “They’ve done for us, and we need to do for them.”