SALT LAKE CITY — More than 40 veterans in our community have a clean slate this Veterans Day and were spared prison time because of a court designed specifically for them.
Since January 2015, veterans in Salt Lake County who break the law have had a chance to redeem themselves in Third District Veterans Treatment Court. It’s a second chance for many veterans to be successful in life and avoid prison — if they follow the rules.
“I got a new chance at having a good life, and it’s all because of veterans court,” said Rob Ruckavina, a U.S. Navy Veteran.
Several years ago he said that wasn’t likely. Ruckavina was sent home in the middle of a deployment.
“I had back problems and mental health stuff, and decided opiates were a good idea,” he said.
A couple of years later, he ended up in veterans court and discovered that it was a very different experience than earlier scrapes with the law. In veterans court, he had to regularly check in with the judge and case managers. He took drug tests and got treatment.
“They are all there to help,” he said. “It was the first time I’ve been involved in a criminal justice situation where that’s how I felt.”
He had to help himself, too. But support from the court, in collaboration with the Veterans Affairs Administration, the district attorney’s office and public defenders, was critical.
“If they had not have shown me that they were there to help, and they really cared, I probably would not have been successful,” Ruckavina said.
As a result, he’s not a felon and he’s not in prison. Not all veterans qualify for the voluntary program, which can take three years to complete.
During the last five years, more than 40 veterans have had convictions cleared or reduced.
“Some guys don’t succeed, but most do and even the guys who don’t succeed have been changed,” said Vietnam War veteran Keith Brown, who is a mentor in the program. “A lot of these veterans use alcohol or drugs to escape.”
They’re escaping the invisible scars of PTSD and other battle wounds. That was a key reason for establishing the collaborative program.
“They were coming back and not getting the help that they needed. They didn’t even know how to ask for that help,” said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill. “Giving that help really helps them to re-integrate back into the community in a way that if we don’t they wouldn’t be able to.”
Ruckavina now mentors other veterans going through the program.
“It gives me the opportunity to give back what was so freely given to me,” he said.
There are now four veterans courts in Utah — two in Salt Lake County and two in Utah County. Last year, near the end of the legislative session, the Utah House looked at a bill that would have created more veterans courts in the state. They are likely to take up the issue again.
The Veterans Treatment Court meets at the Matheson Courthouse every Thursday at 10 a.m.