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December 4, 2012

A COURT THAT CARES: Judge Granger answers call of duty with special court for veterans

NEW ALBANY — Floyd County Superior Court No. 3 Judge Maria Granger is the proud daughter of a retired Marine, sister to a former sailor, and wife and stepmother of soldiers. She answered her call of duty in a different way: By creating a problem-solving court for veterans who find themselves in legal trouble.

Every Monday in her courtroom, young service members who’ve run afoul of the law in returning to civilian life appear in front of Granger to be sentenced to counseling and treatment instead of a jail or prison cell.

Her sentencing conditions are strict — supervision is intense and monitoring is frequent — but they’re handed down with a team of reinforcements that includes volunteer mentors who themselves have survived the experience of war.

It’s an interventionist approach, modeled on veterans treatment courts across the nation, that Granger says honors the guarantee of “restorative justice” found in the Indiana constitution.

It’s also a labor of love, done in the name of her stepson, Army Sgt. Steven Paul Mennemeyer, a combat medic in the Iraq war killed in the line of duty.

“I was so proud of him,” said Granger. “This is just one of the ways I can honor him.”

The special court that Granger started in February is one of four such courts in Indiana launched in partnership with the Veterans Administration and in collaboration with local prosecutors, defense attorneys, police and corrections officials. Two more are in the making.

Their existence is in response to a trend that Granger and other judges have seen in recent years: An increasing number of young service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan showing up in court, charged with relatively small crimes linked to bigger mental health issues, including substance abuse and addiction.

She suspected many were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, brought on by the intense combat they’d witnessed and survived. They were struggling to re-enter civilian life, but too proud or too ill to seek help.

“It can be a very lonely and vast place that they return to when they come back home,” Granger said.

The interventionist approach taken by Granger is modeled on the drug treatment courts that have been working well for 15 years. They were started by judges willing to intervene in the lives of addicts to get them into treatment and keep them out of crowded courtrooms and prisons.

In researching how to set up an effective program, Granger spent time with Robert Russell, a New York judge who created the first veterans treatment court in 2008. A critical piece of the success of his court, he told her, were the volunteer mentors: older veterans who’ve suffered and survived trauma and were willing to share what it took to build a better life.

“There is a powerful connection there: vet to vet,” Granger said. “Somebody who knows where they’ve been and what they been through.”

That led Granger to recruit some combat veterans she knew, including Hauser Cantor, 73, and Jon Bernier, 64. Both are retired, successful businessmen active in community service. And both are Vietnam veterans who bring understanding and empathy gained from combat injuries suffered to body and mind.

“Maintaining contact with people who’ve been where you been is important,” Bernier said. “It means you can cry and scream and rant and rave and have someone who’ll say, ‘it’s going be OK.’”

Cantor said the role of a mentor is simple: “We tell them: ‘We’re here for you, no matter what.’”

That support is important because the conditions that Granger set down can be tough.

The young veterans who come in front of her are typically charged with low-level, non-violent crimes that carry relatively short penalties of incarceration.

So some veterans opt just to do their time, rather than go through the alternative she offers: entry into a substance abuse or mental health treatment program geared specifically for veterans, accompanied by closely monitored compliance, and regularly scheduled court hearings, during which participants can be sanctioned for noncompliance.

“I’ve had guys threaten to quit the program,” Cantor said. “It’s too hard and they just want out. I tell them, ‘Good luck. You can try it on your own, but I guarantee you’ll want back in.’ ”

Granger’s court is in its infancy, so it’s too soon to know if it’ll meet the ultimate goal of keeping young veterans from coming back to court.

But Cantor and Bernier believe in the power of Granger. By creating a special court just for veterans, she’s honoring their past service and re-awakening in them the sense of pride, duty and courage they’ll need to conquer the demons that brought them to her court.

Granger, in turn, credits the power of veteran mentors whose presence conveys: “I have your back.”

“There’s a culture of duty and loyalty in the military,” Granger said. “That doesn’t go away when you leave the service.”

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