I was so inspired watching David Shakes preside over Veterans Trauma Court that when I got home I told my husband: “That judge can see into men’s souls.”
“Or something,” my husband said.
Shakes’s state court in Colorado Springs was the first of its kind in Colorado and is among scores across the country that offer alternatives to prison for veterans who are suffering from PTSD, brain injuries, substance abuse problems or, often, some combination of all of the above. Participants must take part in counseling, make regular court appearances and undergo intensive supervision. Proponents like public defender Sheilagh McAteer, who helped get the Colorado Springs court started in 2009, say such programs can stop vets from progressing from minor crimes to bigger ones, and thereby keep them from doing serious harm to others or themselves.
In court, I had watched Judge Shakes press one young former soldier convicted of drug charges who had missed a series of urine tests. The judge said he had information the vet was using drugs again.
“I don’t know where you’d get that kind of information,’’ the vet said.
Shakes, a former Army judge advocate, just looked at him. After a moment, the young man started spilling. He was using marijuana and meth. He also said he had bought a gun.
“The plan was to shoot myself. But I didn’t follow through.”
“Where’s the gun now?” Shakes said evenly.
“I got rid of it. It’s probably hot.”
“That’s another crime in and of itself. And one the district attorney takes very seriously,” Shakes said. He asked why the man had not yet completed the eight hours of community service he had ordered last time he saw him.
“We are really concerned about you,” the judge said. “You are going to go to jail.”
He gave him two hours to collect his legal medications before starting a short sentence and told him: “I really want you to spend this week in jail thinking about what your next steps are.”
The defendant said the last time he’d been sent to jail he had run into money problems, argued with his family and felt unsupported.
“You’re still blowing us off,” Shakes said.
“I’m not blowing you off.”
The judge relented a bit, giving the backslider the next morning to see a counselor before reporting to jail. Shakes then asked one of the mentors, many of them vets, who volunteer in his court to accompany the drug user home to help him collect his medications and arrange care for his dog. Jail staff received judicial orders to escort the prisoner to a methadone clinic daily.
Hearings are held in the high-rise El Paso County Courthouse in downtown Colorado Springs and look like any other judicial proceedings. Everyone rises when Judge Shakes enters.
But they sound different. Shakes lets out an occasional "hooah!" to cheer vets who are, unlike the young man he sent to jail for a week, keeping doctor's appointments or going regularly to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
I overheard a public defender and a counselor discussing one defendant who had been abused as a child:
“Trauma on top of trauma.”
“With a side order of deployment.”
Unlike the adversarial atmosphere in a traditional court, defense attorneys, prosecutors, probation officers, counselors and volunteers all seem intent on collaborating to ensure Shakes has the information he needs to guide veterans out of trouble. Shakes also reviews regular reports from vets’ focus groups.
“As much as we want to focus on legal and treatment stuff, the vets are thinking jobs, transport, homelessness,” the judge told me in an interview after I watched him in court. His staff working with partners such as Veterans Affairs has built a network of employment, housing, life skills and other advisers to address such issues.
“Veterans court has, I think, something for everybody,” Shakes said. “For those who want to do right for veterans because they have served. For the people who really just want to save money, we do, because veterans court keep people out of prison. We also want to reduce crime. When we say that we can reduce recidivism, what it means to me is we can reduce the number of new victims.”
Shakes describes himself as an Army brat who served 33 years himself, between active duty and reserves. He was an Army judge advocate. As a reserve officer, he traveled widely in post-Saddam Iraq as an advisor trying to bolster the ability of courts there to try insurgents.
He knows what crimes the vets in his court have committed. He also knows the names of their children and what their spouses do for a living. He knows who has been a victim of sexual assault in the military, who has seen a comrade die, who has flashbacks about running over an Iraqi child who dashed in front of a Humvee.
“I’ve been there. I know how that happens. Those things don’t stop on a dime. A little kid runs out in front of you and it’s over.”
“These guys have done stuff that very few people have done, so they deserve an extra few minutes from me, a second chance.”
“Having been there, having seen the kinds of situations these guys have been exposed to does create compassion on my part. But compassion doesn’t mean leniency. I want these guys to get better.”
Maybe my husband was right. It wasn’t that Shakes could see into souls. It was that the men and women standing before him could see into his.