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Miami-Dade Veterans Treatment Court Provides A Village Of Support

MIAMI (CBSMiami) - Court is in session, presiding Judge Marisa Tinkler Mendez praises the defendants, all who served their country.

"You are consistent, you are showing up and doing the work, it's not easy but you are in your routine now. Make sure you have spoken with your mentor and other than that you are all good to go," Judge Tinkler Mendez told those before her.

This is the Veterans Treatment Court.

This special court is a village of support for qualifying veterans who find themselves facing jail time, many with substance abuse problems. The program started two years ago combining Veteran's Affairs, the 11th Judicial Circuit, and offices of the State Attorney and the Public Defender. It is helping people like Brian Saunders, who entered this program after an arrest for battery and resisting arrest.

His attorney in this program is Assistant Public Defender Myles Raucher.

"They're generally third-degree felonies, things like grand theft, it could be battery on a law enforcement officer, generally lower-level felonies," he said.

During a recent court session, Judge Tinkler Menez recognized Saunders' completion of the program.

"The first order of business, we have a celebration, we have a graduate today."

The crowd applauded as he receives his certificate of graduation and the charges were dropped.

In order to graduate they must attend court, meet with a counselor, stay clean and sober, pass random and scheduled drug tests. Not everyone gets through it.

"Most of them are in custody, a majority are homeless, they have nowhere to turn. They have fallen on bad times, whether it's mental health issues, PTSD, or other things that are related to their service. That's what makes them a unique population," Judge Tinkler Mendez said.

Encouragement comes from a "brother in the foxhole," fellow veterans who volunteer as mentors like Ken Penman.

"We found that vets will say things to vets that they won't say to anyone else. So we try to find out what's happening in the veteran's life and we become facilitators," said Penman.

Click Here for more on Veterans Treatment Court.

Sam Wiggins credits the program with saving his life. He's a graduate of the program who is working at the Veterans Affairs administration as an orderly.

"For me, being arrested was the best thing that ever happened to me. I went to drug court and I met Judge Mendez, she's like the pantyhose – no-nonsense. The option was you go to a treatment center or you go to jail, you make the decision," said Wiggins.

A recovering alcoholic and cocaine user, the Army vet served from 1976-79.

"We were exposed to all sorts of social-environmental deterrents. And mentally we are not normal people when they come out of the service," he said.

A survivor, he is grateful and hopeful for his future.

"I ask God to help me be the best housekeeper I can possibly be because I'm not going to be here for life. Everybody in here is a brother to me, is a Navy, Marine or whatever, we are all family here," he said.

For Judge Tinkler Mendez, who heads the program, it's gratifying to see the results.

"They are working full time, reconnecting with their families, being drug-free, engaging in the community, and giving back in the community in a positive way. So it's a win-win for everyone," she said.

The program is in its third year now. To date, 19 veterans have successfully graduated, which can result in a full dismissal of charges.

Click Here for more on Veterans Affairs is doing to help these veterans.

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