Sometimes Lady Justice needs to peek out from under her blindfold for a glimpse of what’s happening. For nearly 15 years, that’s just what she’s been doing in Spokane County.
Admittedly, there was a time when judicial discretion could be applied inappropriately. Offenders guilty of the same law, in the same state and under similar circumstances, could receive disproportionate sentences just because of differences in the personal beliefs of the judge or prevailing attitudes of the surrounding community. That’s why sentencing guidelines were instituted.
But under certain conditions it serves justice and the community to tolerate a little individualism in the system.
An example is Spokane County’s new Veterans Court, the second in the state, where present and former members of the armed forces may qualify for a measure of redemption. Based on the experience with other courts that deal with special offender populations, Veterans Court is expected to restore men and women to productive lives while sparing law-abiding society the cost of their crimes, their prosecution and their upkeep.
The first of these, Drug Court (there’s also a Mental Health Court), went into effect in 1996 and has produced a marked reduction in recidivism among lawbreakers who are struggling with the consequences of substance abuse.
These legal structures don’t work by treating defendants with misguided lenience. They make stern demands and establish structure and expectations. But they offer a choice that allows determined offenders to earn a fresh start. The operative word is earn, and not all of the candidates succeed.
Veterans Court is a particularly worthy approach. Young men and women who accept the assignment of defending their country commonly find themselves in daunting circumstances, then return to the United States with damaged coping mechanisms. They make bad choices that point them in the direction of jail and prison where a host of associations make it harder to rehabilitate themselves.
Veterans Court, like its predecessors, imposes strict conditions while opening doors to support services that can be the bridge back to a responsible life.
It’s not a perfect approach. Some offenders can’t cut it, but every success means fewer crime victims and lower public expense.
“We have the ability to take people who might be felons and pre-empt them,” said District Court Judge Vance Peterson, the former Army Reserve officer who spearheaded creation of the Veterans Court in Spokane County.
It’s a scene to make Lady Justice smile.