Judge Mitch Kalauli

Judge Mitch Kalauli sits in the Veterans Court on Thursday.

As the Lake Havasu City Veterans Court prepares to graduate its first defendant today, it is looking to expand in the coming weeks and months to fill unexpectedly high demand, according to Judge Mitch Kalauli.

With more than 30 veterans on today’s docket and another 10 working their way through the early process to get on the calendar, the court will go from one open hearing a month to two per month in July. The court and its affiliate organizations are ironing out the details to open the program to veterans in Kingman and Bullhead City by the end of the year, and eventually, to all of Mohave County.

Havasu’s Veterans Court started on Veteran’s Day, Nov. 8, 2013, with just one defendant, and at today’s 11:30 a.m. public hearing, more than 30 veterans will go before the judge. At last month’s public hearing, Kalauli reached down from his dais, shook the hand of each veteran who came before him and said, “Thank you for your service to the country.”

During the hearings, the judge checks on the defendant’s progress paying fines, finding work and stable housing and any other difficulties the veteran might be facing. A team of representatives from the prosecutor’s office, public defenders, the local vet center and other groups meet prior to the hearings to discuss the progress of each case. Kalauli said the court’s model is a treatment-based program similar to the drug courts that have flourished nationwide.

“It’s not a free ride; in a lot of ways it is more difficult than regular court…” Kalauli said during an interview last week. “The goal is to get them treatment, so they don’t reoffend. If we put efforts in beforehand and they don’t come back, it’s less expensive in the long run.”

To make the program available to veterans in other parts of the county, Kalauli said, the court is working with the Interagency Council, the local chapter of Disabled American Veterans and other organizations to bring in grants to fund treatment programs in Kingman and Bullhead City and provide transportation for the veterans to the court hearings in Havasu.

While there are around 200 veterans courts across the nation, the Havasu court is the first to cover a rural region, so the transportation and treatment challenges it faces as it tries to expand are unique and being watched by others in the state and country.

Ultimately, the goal is to create a regional veterans court that all veterans in Mohave County would be eligible for, including those on nearby Indian reservations. The veterans court serves misdemeanor defendants only, covering charges such as domestic abuse, DUI and drug possession. It is at the discretion of the prosecutor whether veterans court is the appropriate place to hear a case.

The program’s popularity has also increased a need for volunteers to play a variety of roles. Veterans are matched with mentors, who are fellow veterans of a similar age and military experience. Joe Little of the Havasu Vet Center, which counsels and treats combat veterans, helps train and manage the mentors, whose primary responsibility is assisting the veteran, not answering to the court.

There are currently six mentors on the books, but Kalauli said there is a need for 12 to 15 mentors or even more as the program grows. Some of the mentors work with more than one veteran, and Little said they are looking for veterans of different ages and from different branches with both combat and non-combat experience to serve as mentors. Little said they try to match defendants and mentors with “some commonality.”

“They become the vet’s best friend,” Little said.

Veterans often aren’t even aware of the different resources available to them, and many of those who do feel a stigma against asking for help. A major component of the program is helping the veterans access the health care, counseling, job and housing program and other services that exist to assist veterans.

“A lot of (vets) ignore the benefits they are eligible for – that they have earned,” he said.

Moreover, Kalauli said the court is looking for an outside evaluator, who can use existing tools to assess how the program is doing. The volunteer evaluator should have business, legal, consulting or other experience that would qualify them to evaluate a complicated program like veterans court, Kalauli said. The evaluation process takes about three weeks and should be done once a year, he said.

“We want a program that is healthy and working the way we think it is,” Kalauli said. “Sometimes when you are inside of it, it is hard to step back and look at it that way.”

Justin Chavez, site director for the Northern Arizona Veterans Resource Center for Mohave County, based in Bullhead City, works to help transition homeless vets to permanent housing. He also assists with cases in the Havasu Veterans Court. He said there would definitely be a high demand for the program in the Kingman and Bullhead City area and looks forward to its expansion. The judge said five of the veterans in the program are homeless and two of them have transitioned into housing of some kind.

“The minute the vet court opened up everybody had a sigh of relief,” Chavez said. “Everyone is waiting for the day they do open up to Kingman and Bullhead (City).”

You may contact this reporter at zmatson@havasunews.com.

By ZACHARY MATSON

Today’s News-Herald

As the Lake Havasu City Veterans Court prepares to graduate its first defendant today, it is looking to expand in the coming weeks and months to fill unexpectedly high demand, according to Judge Mitch Kalauli.

With more than 30 veterans on today’s docket and another 10 working their way through the early process to get on the calendar, the court will go from one open hearing a month to two per month in July. The court and its affiliate organizations are ironing out the details to open the program to veterans in Kingman and Bullhead City by the end of the year, and eventually, to all of Mohave County.

Havasu’s Veterans Court started on Veteran’s Day, Nov. 8, 2013, with just one defendant, and at today’s 11:30 a.m. public hearing, more than 30 veterans will go before the judge. At last month’s public hearing, Kalauli reached down from his dais, shook the hand of each veteran who came before him and said, “Thank you for your service to the country.”

During the hearings, the judge checks on the defendant’s progress paying fines, finding work and stable housing and any other difficulties the veteran might be facing. A team of representatives from the prosecutor’s office, public defenders, the local vet center and other groups meet prior to the hearings to discuss the progress of each case. Kalauli said the court’s model is a treatment-based program similar to the drug courts that have flourished nationwide.

“It’s not a free ride; in a lot of ways it is more difficult than regular court…” Kalauli said during an interview last week. “The goal is to get them treatment, so they don’t reoffend. If we put efforts in beforehand and they don’t come back, it’s less expensive in the long run.”

To make the program available to veterans in other parts of the county, Kalauli said, the court is working with the Interagency Council, the local chapter of Disabled American Veterans and other organizations to bring in grants to fund treatment programs in Kingman and Bullhead City and provide transportation for the veterans to the court hearings in Havasu.

While there are around 200 veterans courts across the nation, the Havasu court is the first to cover a rural region, so the transportation and treatment challenges it faces as it tries to expand are unique and being watched by others in the state and country.

Ultimately, the goal is to create a regional veterans court that all veterans in Mohave County would be eligible for, including those on nearby Indian reservations. The veterans court serves misdemeanor defendants only, covering charges such as domestic abuse, DUI and drug possession. It is at the discretion of the prosecutor whether veterans court is the appropriate place to hear a case.

The program’s popularity has also increased a need for volunteers to play a variety of roles. Veterans are matched with mentors, who are fellow veterans of a similar age and military experience. Joe Little of the Havasu Vet Center, which counsels and treats combat veterans, helps train and manage the mentors, whose primary responsibility is assisting the veteran, not answering to the court.

There are currently six mentors on the books, but Kalauli said there is a need for 12 to 15 mentors or even more as the program grows. Some of the mentors work with more than one veteran, and Little said they are looking for veterans of different ages and from different branches with both combat and non-combat experience to serve as mentors. Little said they try to match defendants and mentors with “some commonality.”

“They become the vet’s best friend,” Little said.

Veterans often aren’t even aware of the different resources available to them, and many of those who do feel a stigma against asking for help. A major component of the program is helping the veterans access the health care, counseling, job and housing program and other services that exist to assist veterans.

“A lot of (vets) ignore the benefits they are eligible for – that they have earned,” he said.

Moreover, Kalauli said the court is looking for an outside evaluator, who can use existing tools to assess how the program is doing. The volunteer evaluator should have business, legal, consulting or other experience that would qualify them to evaluate a complicated program like veterans court, Kalauli said. The evaluation process takes about three weeks and should be done once a year, he said.

“We want a program that is healthy and working the way we think it is,” Kalauli said. “Sometimes when you are inside of it, it is hard to step back and look at it that way.”

Justin Chavez, site director for the Northern Arizona Veterans Resource Center for Mohave County, based in Bullhead City, works to help transition homeless vets to permanent housing. He also assists with cases in the Havasu Veterans Court. He said there would definitely be a high demand for the program in the Kingman and Bullhead City area and looks forward to its expansion. The judge said five of the veterans in the program are homeless and two of them have transitioned into housing of some kind.

“The minute the vet court opened up everybody had a sigh of relief,” Chavez said. “Everyone is waiting for the day they do open up to Kingman and Bullhead (City).”

You may contact this reporter at zmatson@havasunews.com.

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