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Maricopa County Event Helps Veterans Get Their Lives Back

Arizona's Veteran's Courts focus on treatment and service instead of punishment for veterans accused of low-level misdemeanors. They have a recidivism rate of around 10% — compared to around 60% for regular criminal courts.

Tiki Netherland served in the Army until 1994. Since getting out, he’s been in court in Maricopa county a few times, mostly for traffic and marijuana offenses. 

“I used to be an alcoholic,” Netherland said. “I completed a 60-day program, so I got 100-or-something days clean and sober. My sobriety date is Oct. 10 (2019). I got a DUI back in the day, years ago, but it’s hindering me from getting my license.”

At the 2020 Maricopa County StandDown, he joined about 900 other veterans who took advantage of Veteran’s Court and ADOT’s driver’s license clinic. The Phoenix Municipal Veteran’s Court, as well as similar courts from Maricopa County and around the state set up shop for two days. 

Military veterans accused of misdemeanors in Arizona have the benefit of the Veteran’s Court system, which focuses heavily on rehabilitation instead of punishment. Defendants can pay off fines through community service hours and can get credit for finding employment and stable housing.

Kevin Kane is the presiding judge of Tempe Municipal Court and the East Valley Regional Veteran’s Court. He described a recent shoplifting case where the defendant was able to work with a Veteran’s Court caseworker and, instead of jail or fines, was sentenced to drug treatment. 

“The prosecutor agreed that if she would get some help with substance abuse, which was the underlying issue, they would dismiss the case,” Kane said. “She was then able to get her driver’s license, then get a job and housing.”

Many crimes committed by veterans are related to addiction and homelessness issues. The problems most defendants in Veteran’s Court face are directly related to military service, says Nathan Foundas, the lead defense attorney for the Phoenix Municipal Court’s Veteran’s Court.

“We tell the veterans, ‘you come in with a bunch of issues, including charges. But when you leave, we try to make sure you’re in a better place,’” Foundas said. “So you have stable housing, stable employment with some source of income. We try to help them get set up with Social Security, disability or some VA benefits like a VA pension — we try to do whatever we can to help out the vets.”

The Phoenix Veteran’s Court sees significantly lower recidivism rates than regular criminal courts in Arizona.

Only eight to twelve percent of Veteran’s Court graduates are arrested again — compared to almost 60 percent of defendants in regular criminal court. 

“The whole idea is to help people help themselves,” Kane said. “Politically there was some concern that we were treating people differently or maybe we were being easy on those people who were criminal offenders.”

Foundas says he’d like to see some of the programs offered in Veteran’s Court expanded to courts statewide. 

“It’s a model that shows them what can happen when you apply those resources to individuals,” Foundas said. “I think if you get those resources and make them available, not just to veterans but everybody, you’re going to have a lower recidivism rate, and it’s gonna benefit everyone.”

Driver's License Clinic

Netherland was ordered to perform community service — which he was able to do by cleaning up and helping out at the StandDown event. He hasn’t done enough to get his license back, yet. 

“I’m 47-years-old, and I’d like to be able to drive legally,” he said. “Now that I’m clean and sober, I’d like to have my driver’s license.” 

Another Army veteran, Asha Lee, who got out of the Army in 2006, got her driver's license today. It took her nearly three years, even though she didn’t break any laws. 

“My last name has been messed up. My ex-husband didn’t agree to my name change, couldn’t get my license, couldn’t get fines cleared, because of the last name,” she said. “I couldn’t get a legal name change because he didn’t agree to it. I come here, and I get a temporary 6-month license, and now my life is pretty much put back together.”

ADOT set up a full-service mobile MVD at the 2020 Maricopa County StandDown. It helped several hundred veterans get new licenses. It even had a road test course. MVD staffer Kyle Ulibarri set it all up. 

“A lot of the veterans, especially homeless veterans, tend to have drivers license issues, they lose it, or you know, get a ticket or DUI.” Ulibarri said. “This is for us to get together as government agencies, connect in one spot,  get them their tickets cleared, get them their license back so they can try to get their lives back on the road.”

Scott Bourque was a reporter and podcast producer at KJZZ from 2019 to 2022.