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SALT LAKE CITY — As Mike Suddith stands before Judge John Baxter in court, he believes he's close to putting a drug paraphernalia possession behind him.
"Not wanting additional legal issues in my life," he said, "it was time to say, 'Enough is enough.'"
Suddith is an Army veteran standing in Veterans Court, a new program within Salt Lake City Justice Courts. The 6-month-old program aims to help veterans charged with misdemeanor crimes steer clear of more serious trouble.
I think I've got a personal, moral obligation, I feel very strongly about that, to help them in any way that I can.
–Judge John Baxter
Nearly 10 percent of the inmates in jails and prisons are veterans. Seventy percent of them are arrested for nonviolent crimes. This program aspires to get them back on track with language and accountability that veterans understand.
"It's meant a great deal to me in my success in recovery," Suddith said
He aims to stay clean and sober, and the misdemeanor actually helped him return to sobriety. So did the judge.
"He has things in common with all of us, being that he's a veteran as well," said Suddith.
Suddith is an Army veteran. Baxter is a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War.
Baxter said Veterans Court recognizes the veterans' service and gives them a chance to receive some credit for the war-related problems they encountered when they came home.
"These folks are coming back with problems," the judge said. "I think I've got a personal, moral obligation, I feel very strongly about that, to help them in any way that I can."
Veterans Court gives small-time offenders, like Suddith, a second chance.
You feel more comfortable ... You feel like you can talk to them easier.
–Ian Jones, veteran
"As long as I continue with my accountability, continue meeting the expectations, and continue to be in compliance with what they expect of me," he said.
Veterans Court meets in the Salt Lake Justice Court twice a month. Baxter hopes to keep small cases from growing into felonies that lead to jail or prison time. Without intervention, vets in jail are at significant risk for mental health problems, medical issues, drug and alcohol abuse and re-incarceration.
With nine years on the bench, Baxter demands accountability. He often plays the role of a father or coach. He'll encourage and congratulate, or even scold.
"You're going to tell them, 'This is not the kind of thing I expect out of you, I know you can do this better. I want you to man up. I want you to do this thing the way I know you can."
The veterans understand that approach, Baxter said, and the orders they're given by the court. He believes former members of the military are motivated to succeed when they recognize that familiar way of operating.
Army veteran Ian Jones agrees. He has visible tattoos and feared a judge might judge him on his appearance. It turns out, Judge Baxter has tattoos on his arms too.
"You feel more comfortable ... that comfortable bond," he said. "You feel like you can talk to them easier."
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill came up with the idea while he was Salt Lake City prosecutor. The collaboration between the Salt Lake Veterans Administration and justice courts started six months ago. A veterans court in Salt Lake's federal courts system started up in March and the 3rd District Court is working to develop a similar program.
"If we can intervene at this point, and encourage and support treatment intervention, before people hit that felony level behavior, then I'll consider this court to have been a success," Baxter said.
So far, he said he hasn't had to send anyone off to jail, or give up on any of the vets. Nearly 40 vets have been through the court.