SALT LAKE CITY — Less than six months since its inception, Salt Lake City's veterans court is reeling after police say one of its participants, Johnathon Reeves, gunned down his fiancée and 2-year-old son before taking his own life.
Reeves, 30, who lists his employer as the U.S. Army on his Facebook page, joined the veterans treatment court after taking a plea in abeyance in January to domestic violence charges. That program, including many people already pained by the deaths of their comrades and those committed to helping them, must now face Reeves’ death and the allegations against him.
"The most important thing I want everybody to know is, yes, we take people with very difficult problems," said Richard Schwermer, assistant Utah State Courts administrator. "If we don't take them in veterans court, by definition they're going to get less help. That's why we take the folks with very serious issues."
Administrators of Salt Lake's veterans court — the judge, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement, mental health professionals and mentors — began discussions Monday about how the program will respond to the shooting and how to address what happened with other participants in the program.
"We don't know all the reasons that 'problem solving' courts work, but one of them is the relationship members have, with the judge particularly, but with everybody else as well, with all the other team members. It's really hard right now for them," Schwermer said.
Utah has looked at establishing veterans courts since 2011, formally organizing programs in Salt Lake and Utah counties in January, according to Schwermer. Each court has between 15 and 20 members so far and gains a few new participants every couple of weeks.
Modeled after popular drug and mental health court programs, veterans court aims to assist military men and women who find themselves facing criminal charges and at risk of languishing in the criminal justice system. Many of them are also battling post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, mental illness or addiction, Schwermer emphasized.
The court focuses on treatment, rehabilitation, accountability through frequent court appearances and connecting veterans to appropriate resources. It does not limit participants only to those who have committed low-level crimes, though participants must plead guilty or enter a plea in abeyance to join, Schwermer said.
"One of the things the researchers told us, is, actually, if you target misdemeanors and low-level felonies, you're going to do more harm than good," Schwermer said. "We're taking the hardest ones because this is our most intensive and most resource-intensive program. … It's for the folks who need that level of intervention from the court system and the treatment community."
Without veterans courts and other "problem solving" courts, those people who are failing in regular channels of the justice system would be left without the accountability and support they need, Schwermer said. The young program continues to assess how to best bring in and treat veterans in court rather than rubber-stamping them through the system.
"The next step is being sure that we're using the research that's out there to be sure we're getting the right people in our courts, that we're treating them in the most effective way, and that we grow appropriately so that we can serve more and more of these folks who need our help," Schwermer said. "We are reminded every day of how hard the struggle is for everybody, but veterans included, who have serious mental health and substance abuse system issues, and involvement with the criminal justice system. Research tells us emphatically this is the best approach."