By Richard Halstead
Marin Independent Journal
Reprinted by permission
Army Veteran Jeffrey Barbe was homeless when he was arrested on a drug offense. Now he says he’s a student on track to study prelaw at the University of California at Berkeley.
“If it wasn’t for this program, I’d probably still be on the streets stuck on meth,” said Barbe, one of nine former military service members honored in Marin Superior Court this week after graduating from the county’s new veterans treatment court.
The court, which was launched in July 2021, gives veterans the opportunity to have criminal offenses dismissed or expunged from their record if they complete a rehabilitation program.
For his success, Barbe credited Veteran Affairs social worker Brian Dobbs for not giving up on him.
“Brian had to put me back in treatment three times,” Barbe said.
Approximately 60 veterans have been referred to the program since its inception. District Attorney Lori Frugoli said more than nine veterans have completed the program successfully since then, but she couldn’t supply an exact number.
“There are veterans who were successful in veterans court and had their cases dismissed, but we were unable to contact the team,” Frugoli said. “We have had different public defenders and district attorneys on the formal court as well as private counsel.”
Frugoli said that many veterans who were initially referred to the court did not qualify as a veteran or were facing charges that made them ineligible for the program. The court is open to veterans, active-duty service members, reservists and members of the National Guard who have a probation-eligible criminal case.
Marin County Superior Court Judge Roy Chernus, who oversaw the court’s creation and presides over it, said Marin judges resisted the idea of its creation for years because they thought there were too few veterans in the county to make it feasible.
“That was clearly wrong,” Chernus said.
One initial hurdle was identifying veterans who have been arrested. That is now being done with the assistance of the Marin County’s Sheriff’s Office. The agency taps into a federal database, the Veterans Re-entry Search Service (VRSS), an automated system operated through the Veterans Administration that can locate veterans who are incarcerated nationwide.
Sheriff’s Deputy Phil Marsh said five veterans were in Marin County Jail on Tuesday, a typical number. Marsh said that thanks to VRSS he has identified 10 veterans who were booked into the jail and did not claim veteran status.
He said some were in the military for a brief time or discharged under other-than-honorable circumstances and felt that they didn’t merit any special consideration.
“Believe it or not, some inmates say they’re veterans to try and get accepted to veterans treatment court, but the response back from the VRSS inquiry will dictate otherwise,” Marsh said.
Marin County Veterans Service Officer Sean Stephens, who championed the creation of the veterans court, said that besides helping to keep veteran’s’ criminal records clean, the court plays an important role in getting them enrolled for services such as medical care.
“I got introduced to so many new services at the VA because of this,” said Kenny Barber, a graduate of the court, who was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol.
Barber, 46, who served 21 years in the U.S. Coast Guard, was required to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings as part of his rehabilitation.
“Even though I’m finished with this, I’m going to keep going,” Barber said. “It’s a good group.”
Barber said he suffers from anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder after weathering a hurricane in a small Coast Guard boat. He said he’s had a number of friends die by suicide.
“When I hear about stuff like that it is kind of a trigger,” Barber said.
Of the 85 men who died by suicide in Marin from 2019 to 2021, at least 15, or 17.6%, were veterans, according to the county public health department. The Marin County Department of Health and Human Services currently knows of 21 homeless veterans in Marin.
One third of veterans self-report having been arrested and booked into jail at least once, compared to fewer than one fifth of civilians, according to a report released last year by the Council on Criminal Justice think tank. The report also cited Justice Department data showing that nearly 8% of those incarcerated in state prisons and more than 5% of people in federal prisons were veterans.
The report stated that veterans have multiple risk factors that place them at higher risk of incarceration. These include combat-related trauma and post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injuries, substance abuse, adverse childhood experience and sexual trauma while in the military.
In addition to Frugoli, Public Defender David Sutton, Chernus and other judges, Tuesday’s ceremony was attended by three county supervisors and Rep. Jared Huffman.
Michael Pritchard, who became a youth counselor after making a name for himself as a stand-up comic, addressed the graduates, saying, “We love you. We’re your community. We care about you deeply. We want you with us.”