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Attorney to Speak on Veterans in Criminal Justice System

“Revved up.”

That’s what former Army Scout Brockton Hunter calls the feeling of patrolling the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea during his service in the 1980s.

He recalls serving there for a year, “in this weird twilight zone war where everyone was ready to kill and die at a moment’s notice.”

Though he never served in combat, that feeling of being revved up stayed with Hunter, making transitioning back to civilian life a challenge.

He is now a nationally recognized expert on how post-traumatic stress disorder impacts combat veterans, and will be presenting a talk hosted by Fielding Graduate University called “Echoes of War: The Combat Veteran in the Criminal Justice System.” It will be held from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the Santa Barbara Jury Assembly Room at 1108 Santa Barbara St. in Santa Barbara. The presentation is free and open to the public.

Hunter is a criminal defense attorney who has handled many cases of veterans who have committed crimes while suffering from undiagnosed PTSD and other mental conditions.

Hunter told Noozhawk on Monday that he was shocked to see how many Vietnam War vets were cycling through the justice system when he began working a public defender in Minneapolis in the 1990s.

Then the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened, and among the chaos of other thoughts, Hunter remembers thinking that the country would be going to war again, and that those soldiers would eventually return home to their own difficult transitions.

Less than 1 percent of Americans are serving in the military, and half of them have been involved in combat, Hunter said, adding that with such a small population, many people are unaware of what veterans have faced during their service.

“A big part of my presentation Thursday is to sensitize these folks to what combat trauma looks like,” he said, adding that combat trauma is recorded in literature as early as Homer’s Odyssey. “This is about preparing for the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan.” 

Hunter stresses that Veteran Treatment Courts, which examine treatment instead of incarceration for vets who have committed crimes during episodes of PTSD, aren’t a “get out of jail free card for vets.” The vet has to agree to keep up his or her end of treatment, but as a result can avoid jail time or even have charges dropped if a judge is sufficiently convinced of the veteran’s recovery.

Because new therapies can bring back up some of the trauma the soldier has experienced, many drop out of treatment rather than complete it, he said. Veterans Affairs can’t force people into treatment, but if a person is incarcerated, “now you have some leverage.”

With the VA paying for the treatment costs, courts just have to learn how to communicate among the various departments.

“We’re going to be dealing with this generation of veterans, most of whom will come home strong, but a statistically significant number will bring war home with them in some level,” he said. As those numbers swell over the next five years, “the question is whether we’re going to be dealing with these people 10, 20, 30 years down the road.”

Treatment courts reduce recidivism, saving the system money and enhancing public safety, he said. Programs in Minneapolis, where Hunter’s practice is based, bear this out.

A local effort, led by Judge George Eskin, with support from Fielding Graduate University’s Institute for Social Innovation and other community stakeholders, is working to develop and implement the best approach to supporting Santa Barbara County veterans while protecting public safety. A separate Veterans Treatment Court was also instituted in November 2011 in Santa Maria, and the first graduates of that program will be announced at a ceremony on Wednesday.

The Institute for Social Innovation partnered with Santa Barbara County Superior Court, Santa Barbara Women Lawyers, the Santa Barbara County Bar Association and the Common Ground Santa Barbara Homeless Advocacy Project to sponsor Thursday’s event. 

Thursday’s event also counts for 1.5 hours of Minimum Continuing Legal Education required of California attorneys. Space is limited at the event, so reservations should be sent to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or call 805.451.5604.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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