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First defendants graduate from L.A. County Veterans Court

Veterans court
The first seven graduates of the Veterans Court in Los Angeles County will be honored Tuesday morning after undergoing mental health treatment and regularly appearing before a judge.

The court, like others in Orange County and around the nation, is designed to help veterans whose lives have collided with the criminal justice system. If a judge's criteria -- including steady employment and staying clean and sober -- are met, charges can be dropped or reduced.

“Our graduating veterans have truly invested in change," Sergio Antoniuk, a social worker with the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department, said in a statement. "They have humbly tackled problems that have hindered their stability and progress.”

Los Angeles County's court started in 2010 and accepts veterans facing felony charges, ranging from theft to drug possession. Eligible veterans are those whose offenses might be linked to mental health or substance abuse issues arising from their service. The residential and outpatient treatment is provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

"If these guys don't get help, I think they're going to deteriorate," said Superior Court Judge Michael Tynan, who oversees about 75 veterans in the L.A. County program.

The success rates are high in such courts around the nation. In San Jose, there have been 72 graduates and only six new convictions, and in Buffalo, N.Y., there have been 71 graduates — none of whom have since been in trouble with the law.

"I think now there is a concerted effort to look at what ways to engage veterans, to reduce the presence of veterans in the criminal justice system," said Judge Robert Russell, the man behind Buffalo's program. "This war was a different war."

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--Anna Gorman and Nicole Santa Cruz

Photo: Judge Michael Tynan, left, shakes the hand of a veteran in January to congratulate him on doing well in a recovery program at the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center in downtown Los Angeles. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times.

 
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