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Veterans Treatment Court in Santa Barbara Graduates First Class

Criminal charges are dismissed for the five men who have completed the program, which focuses on intervention instead of incarceration

With a few words spoken by Judge Jean Dandona from the stage at the Veterans Memorial Building in Santa Barbara on Friday, five veterans sitting in the audience below had the criminal charges they were facing dismissed.

Those charges were dropped, signaling that the first class of veterans treatment court in Southern Santa Barbara County had graduated. Steve Lopez and Michael Goodwin, who served in the U.S. Army, Ted Johnson and Glenn Merrifield, who served in the U.S. Navy, and Mark Odorfer of the U.S. Air Force were among the graduates.

The court was established in summer 2012 to serve veterans in the justice system struggling with addiction and serious mental illness to be better served through treatment and intervention rather than incarceration.

Santa Maria has had a veterans treatment court since 2011, but a corresponding court in Santa Barbara began in 2012 and graduated its first group of five veterans on Friday.

The court offers alternatives to case proceedings that address underlying problems that contribute to criminal activity or other court involvement.

Upon successful completion of the program, which can range from 12 to 18 months, charges could be reduced or even dismissed, as they were for the five men who graduated Friday.

The ceremony was a meaningful one for Judge George Eskin, who spearheaded the program and announced his retirement earlier this year, and Dandona will be assuming the caseload for the program in Eskin's absence.

One of the graduates who inspired the creation of the court was Army veteran Lopez, whom Eskin introduced.

Lopez graduated with honors from Santa Barbara High School, and even though he was given an academic scholarship to attend college, he enlisted in the Army.

When he arrived home serving in the Persian Gulf War in 1992, there weren't as many services offered to veterans as there are now, Lopez said.

Lopez said the now mandatory psych evaluation that every soldier goes through upon return now was not mandatory then.

Even years after his return, Lopez could not resume life as he had before his tour of duty.

"I still hadn't come home," he said.

He didn't realize he had PTSD until hearing former UCSB professor and Rep. Walter Capps speak about it during a UCSB course called "The Vietnam Experience."

"He was damaged there in the Gulf War," Eskin said, and Lopez ended up in Eskin's courtroom.

Though Santa Barbara County has had a substance abuse treatment court since 1996, Lopez said being surrounded by other veterans "changes everything."

Lopez now lives in the Los Angeles-based Bimini Recovery House and hopes to give back to the community now that he's completed his court program.

Several from the court system spoke Friday, including Deputy District Attorney Michael Carrozzo, a former JAG officer who helped Eskin coordinate the program, and public defender Rai Montes de Oca.

Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley said her aunt served as a psychiatric nurse during World War II, and Dudley carried the flag that had been presented to the family after her aunt's death.

She died with two unfulfilled hopes, Dudley said, the first being that gay service members would be openly accepted and that people would more fully understand that war came at a cost to mental and physical health.

If her aunt could have seen the treatment court in operation in Santa Barbara County today, Dudley said, "she would be in awe."

First District county Supervisor Salud Carbajal, who is a veteran who served in the U.S. Marine Corps, also spoke.

"While you may have fallen down a time or two, you again have risen to the occasion," he told the graduates. 

Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf also spoke, and told the graduates that the community was there to support them.

"This is one step in the journey," she said. "It's OK to ask for help and support."

Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson said she has watched the program unfold as her husband has worked to move it forward.

"Redemption is far better than retribution, and we understand that," she said.

Santa Barbara police officer Craig Burleigh works with veterans who have ended up homeless and live on the streets. He said there are 35 veterans in the program.

Retired Gen. Fred Lopez of the U.S. Marine Corps also spoke, stressing the importance of the treatment court.

As many as one-third of homeless adults have served in the military, he said, and 81 percent of all justice-involved veterans have had substance abuse issues before incarceration.

"They fought for us," he said. "Now it's our turn to fight for them."

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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