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When a Judge Goes to Jail: Above the Call of Duty for a Struggling Veteran

You have just been ordered to spend 24 hours in jail.  You are booked and processed you are stripped, searched, and dressed in a not so freshly laundered cotton jumpsuit.  You are fairly certain you have missed dinner.  As you sink down on your bunk you sigh in relief that it is only 24 hours.  Your mind starts to wander back to two hours ago— to the shame and disappointment you felt at violating the terms of your probation—about lying to a judge and in a court that you felt, for once, actually cared and had given you the opportunity to confront your alcohol abuse that resulted in a DUI.  Suddenly the buzzer screeches.  You remove your head from your hands and find yourself staring into the face of the judge that sentenced you.  He tells you he is here to do your time with you.

In our line of work we see a lot of unbelievable things, but even for a criminal defense attorney, this surpasses most.

This anecdote comes from the incredible story of Joseph Serna and Veteran’s Court Judge Lou Olivera, also a Gulf War Veteran, in North Carolina.  Judge Olivera presided over Serna’s DUI case, which had been diverted to the Veteran’s Court, and had overseen Serna’s alcohol treatment program. Serna served three combat tours in Afghanistan and came home suffering from PTSD, for which he used alcohol to cope.  His alcoholism led him to appear in court numerous times and ultimately landed him before Judge Olivera.  When Serna lied about the results of a urinalysis, Judge Olivera sentenced him to 24 hours in jail.  Serna describes his time with Olivera alone in a one man jail cell as more of “father-son” time in which the two military Veterans discussed their military careers, experiences in combat, and PTSD.  After the 24 sentence was over, Judge Olivera drove Mr. Serna home, stopping to pick up donuts for his family.

Mr. Serna’s wife stated that since his fortuitous night with the judge in a jail cell, she has already seen positive changes.  This story is a perfect example of how powerful compassion and an honest belief in building stronger communities can be in changing the lives of those struggling—especially our veterans.  Mr. Serna was able to not only receive the services he needed through the Veteran’s Court, but he was able to find a community of peers who saw in him much of themselves and were willing to go the extra mile to ensure his success.  This is the true spirit of the Veteran’s Court, and while I have yet to see a judge serve a sentence with a participant, I have seen the power that compassion, a genuine desire to understand, and a bit of tough love can do for the men and women who come through the doors.  Judge Olivera relayed part of a short story he had heard when he was asked why he chose to spend the night with Mr. Serna:

“It talked about a soldier with PTSD in a hole.  A family member, a therapist and a friend all throw down a rope to help the veteran suffering. Finally, a fellow veteran climbs into the hole with him.  The soldier suffering with PTSD asks, ‘Why are you down here?’ The fellow veteran replied, ‘I am here to climb out with you.'”

Locally, various municipal courts are leaders (e.g., Phoenix and Tempe) and sadly, some are laggards (e.g. Scottsdale) in recognizing the challenges veterans who are charged with misdemeanor offenses face.  Just as we greet any veteran with “thank you for your service” before addressing them in public, Veterans Courts should be established in all cities to address the unique circumstances and challenges veterans face in adjusting to civilian life.  Money, logistics, and willpower are not acceptable excuses for failing to act; veterans facing misdemeanor offenses here in the Valley of the Sun deserve the very best.  For those who have bravely served and sacrificed everything, there should be no question.  They deserve the best, and this is the least we can do as Arizonans to recognize their service.