For DJ Vinsant, the Lake Havasu City Veterans Treatment Court was a life changing experience, and possibly a lifesaving one as well.
In a Youtube video Vinsant posted just before graduating from the Veterans Treatment Court in April, he said that he had been abusing heroin for 11 years, starting at the age of 17. He had just been released from the hospital when he ended up getting into a fight on the side of the road which resulted in his arrest and appearance in court.
It wasn’t his first time in front of Lake Havasu City Magistrate Judge Mitchell Kalauli.
“I knew that I had to do something different, because if I continued doing the same thing I was not going to make it much longer,” Vinsant said. “I was at the point where it was either death or prison for a really long time if I continued with my abuse – and I didn’t really see it being prison. I really felt like something bad was going to happen.”
The answer for Vinsant, and many local veterans who have found themselves caught up in the legal system, was the Lake Havasu City Veterans Treatment Court.
The Veterans Treatment Court will turn six years old on Veterans Day this year. Since its inception in 2013, the court has been a pioneer of sorts, both as the first Veterans Treatment Court in rural Arizona, and the first such court in all of Western Arizona. During that time it has set a high bar for success, boasting an almost microscopic 4.8 percent recidivism rate amongst its 164 graduates. A total of 303 veterans have participated in the court so far.
For comparison, Kalauli said the national recidivism rate – the rate at which first time offenders appear back in court on new charges – is roughly 85 percent for normal court proceedings.
Originally, Vinsant said he entered the program as simply a way to avoid going to jail, but it quickly became much more than that.
“In there I became really motivated,” Vinsant said. “I realized that when I talked, people would listen to me. When I would share my story with them they would listen… When I saw how hard they were working with me it motivated me that much more.”
Vinsant was able to graduate from the local Veterans Treatment Court this spring, and said in the video that he has been able to stay sober and get a job with Southwest Behavior & Health Services. He credited Kalauli, or Judge K as participants call him, along with the rest of the Veterans Treatment Court team for all the progress that he has made in about a year’s time.
A different approach
“One of the things that we have come to find out about our legal system is that we are really good about getting people in, and keeping them in. We aren’t so good about once they get in, getting them out long term,” Kalauli said. “Clearly, if we want them to stay in the system we are doing a good job. If not, we may want to look at some other things and see if there are other ways to deal with it.”
Although there are many different kinds of treatment courts today, the movement started with Drug Treatment Courts about 25 to 30 years ago, Kalauli said.
“The idea behind the drug court, basically, is that if you put more effort in up front, you will get a better result on the back end,” he said. “They found, really through trial and error, that if you do things a certain way you will get a better result. Right now drug court recidivism rates are somewhere between 25 and 50 percent. So it halved what it was before.”
About 10 years ago, Veterans Treatment Courts grew out of the drug courts as officials started to notice that military veterans in particular sometimes had a hard time completing the requirements of drug court. So the courts decided to focus on their shared status as veterans as a way provide treatment.
“They served in the military. They signed on the dotted line. Even if they didn’t end up in combat, when they signed on the dotted line to join the armed forces there is a chance that you could lose your life for your country,” Kalauli said. “Because of that common thread, and because of the military culture we have been able to focus on that and get them back to that time in their life when they were proud of what they were doing.”
Since then, Veterans Treatment Courts have become some of the most successful treatment courts in the country with a 25 percent recidivism rate nationwide.
“A lot of that is the comradery and the fact that you are bringing them back to a time when they were proud of who they are and what they were doing,” Kalauli said. “We are saying, ‘That’s the real you. Whatever got you into court, we will deal with that and provide services that you need. But the real you is the one that can have pride in what you were willing to do for our country.”
Coming to Lake Havasu City
Kalauli said the Veterans Treatment Court was the brainchild of former Lake Havasu City Mayor Mark Nexsen. He said Nexsen learned of the option while watching a report about Houston’s Veterans Court.
“A couple weeks later he came to me and said, ‘Hey Judge, what do you think about a Veterans Treatment Court?’ And what I heard was, ‘Hey Judge, if you want to keep your job you’d better get a Veterans Treatment Court going,’” Kalauli said.
Kalauli said he had experience running a drug treatment court before moving to Lake Havasu City, so he was familiar with treatment courts.
“I knew, I understood, and I believed in the concept that if we would put more effort in up front that we would get a better result on the back end,” he said. “So I was really excited about it.”
So Kalauli went to work setting up the Veterans Treatment Court while Nexsen drummed up support politically. After months of planning, the court officially opened on Veterans Day, 2013 with one participant. But the court quickly grew from there.
“I told people all the time that we would only have five to 10 people in the program at any given time,” Kalauli said. “That was true – for about the first six months. After that it has just been growing and growing. Now we have around 50 people and we typically have between 50 and 70 people at any one time.”
Although Lake Havasu City was not the first place to start a Veterans Treatment Court it was one of the first in Arizona, and the only rural veterans court in the state. Kalauli said that made for some interesting challenges as the court got started.
“It is easier to have a Veterans Treatment Court in a big city because you typically will have a VA Hospital right there, so there are all those services that are available to them. In rural areas it is a bit more difficult,” Kalauli said. “But clearly if we can do it, it is not impossible. I think you just have to find some people that really want to make it happen. It isn’t going to look exactly like what is happening in the cities – each Veterans Treatment Court kind of will have its own feel. I think the key is that we are connecting them to services. If we connect them with services, when they run into problems in the future they know where to get those services.”
To get the ball rolling, Kalauli said he bribed several local organizations with pizza to get together and talk about what services they each provide, and what could be done to help those in the treatment court. What started as a partnership between the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Military Moms, The Marine Corps League and Disabled American Veterans has grown to include 50 different organizations over the last six years.
“What developed from that is really amazing,” Kalauli said. “It is really a loosely-knit organization that has kind of taken on a life of its own, and really has driven a lot of the success that we are having both in Veterans Court and with veterans issues in Lake Havasu City.”
He said that outside support has been key to the Veterans Court’s early success.
“If the community is behind it then when things need to change, when you need more resources or services, or you are trying to get these veterans into good settings, if you don’t have that community component it is going to be really difficult to do that,” Kalauli said.
He also said the court has received a lot of support politically, especially from Congressman Paul Gosar, who has been involved in the formation of the court, and even attended some of the initial meetings back in 2013. In March, Paul Gosar read the Lake Havasu Veterans Treatment Court into the Congressional Record, lauding the program for the difference it has made in the lives of veterans.
“We have always a good relationship with him,” Kalauli said. “He has been very supportive of us, and really supportive of the veterans in our program. We have had to contact his office in a few of our veteran’s cases to try to get some things going with their benefits, and their office has just been great with that.”
Gosar was in Lake Havasu City on Tuesday, holding a Veteran’s Town Hall at the London Bridge Resort when he again touted the accomplishments of Veterans Treatment Court.
“It’s setting the standard across the country,” Gosar said. “We’re using the discipline of the military service buildup to rehabilitate some of our veterans who stumble. It’s an absolute phenomenal process.”
Although not related to Lake Havasu City specifically, Senator Martha McSally recently introduced the Veterans Treatment Court Coordination Act of 2019 to the U.S. Senate. The bill aims to create a program in coordination with the Department of Veterans Affairs to help states, cities and tribes develop and maintain veteran treatment courts, as well as providing grants, training and technical assistance.
Veterans Courts catch on
Although Lake Havasu City had the first Veterans Treatment Court in Western Arizona, it has a lot of company now. After the local courts initial success, Veterans Treatment Courts started to spring up all over with one in Kingman, one in Bullhead City, on in La Paz County, and Kalauli said he has been working with Yuma, which hopes to open up its own court soon.
“Once Yuma gets started we will have covered all of Western Arizona,” Kalauli said. “That is really neat, especially since Western Arizona is so rural.”
Future in Lake Havasu City
After the initial success of the Veterans Treatment Court, Kalauli said he would like to see more treatment courts come to Lake Havasu City in the coming years.
“I would love to be able to have treatment courts in different contexts,” he said. “So not just a veterans court but a drug court, a mental health court, a DUI court, maybe a domestic violence court using those principals, because they do work. If you want long term success, if you don’t want people to come back, then spending more time with them and making sure that they get the treatment and services that they need up front will give you a better result.”
Despite some extra leg work up front, Kalauli said treatment courts actually save governments money in the long run.
“For every $2 spent in a treatment court it is $7 in regular court if you look at all the jail costs, warrants, and all of the other things that happen,” he said. “If you look at the big picture and think about maybe turning a person who is homeless with a drug addiction into a person who is tax paying and a good citizen in the community, the difference is more like $1 to $27. So if you get them in, work them through the program, and are successful in it there is a lot more savings because you don’t have people who are in the legal system for 30 years and owe the court $30,000 that they can never pay.”
Mayor Cal Sheehy said the city has already had some early discussions about expanding the treatment court options in Havasu, mentioning a Drug Court and Mental Health Treatment Courts as probably the two highest priorities currently.
“We have had initial conversations and Judge Kalauli has indicated his desire to expand the treatment courts,” Sheehy said. “But because of those space constraints we haven’t moved those discussions further. Once we address the space, which we all understand is a need, then we can start to have those conversations and start to bringing that to fruition.”