The Court Of Compassion

For veterans damaged by trauma, Judge Brian MacKenzie’s courtroom offers a chance to heal // Photographs by Josh Scott
Judge Brian Mackenzie with a Doberman named Rylan at the Veterans Court.

A blonde, middle-aged woman, petite and casually dressed in a loose gray workout ensemble, shifts nervously about 10 feet from the judge. Towering over her from behind his bench, he shuffles silently through a pile of papers in front of him.

For anyone who might have picked this moment to walk into Judge Brian MacKenzie’s chambers at the 52nd District Court in Novi, it looks as if the woman is about to receive a long sentence — or, at the very least, a harsh admonition.

Instead, MacKenzie suddenly looks up, locks eyes, and says in a soft and soothing voice, “You’re looking good today, Holly.”

“Thank you, Judge,” she says with a slight smile, her voice barely audible.

Veteran Holly Most in the 52nd District Court.

Holly Most isn’t exactly a typical defendant. Then again, this isn’t a typical courtroom. Most is a former radar operator in the Air Force, one of a dozen or so veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam assembled on this day in Judge MacKenzie’s Veterans Court.
Launched by MacKenzie in 2010, it was the first of its kind in the state. Now there are four courts in southeastern Michigan alone and 120 in 35 states nationwide — all specifically designed to handle the nonviolent transgressions of veterans.

Most, 40, suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety, which escalated after she left the service and began trying to make the transition to civilian life.

“I self-medicated my anxiety with drinking,” she says. After violating her probation by getting arrested a second time — for a DUI — Most was fully prepared to go to jail.

“You tell a veteran they’re going to do jail time and we don’t get as scared as the average person,” Most says with an easy laugh. “Three meals a day, a warm bed, and we don’t have to clean! Where do I sign up? I just wanted to get it over with, get out, and have a big party.”

But family and a few close friends intervened, convincing Most to opt for the alternative to jail offered by Veterans Court — a stringent 18-month program requiring alcohol- or substance-abuse counseling, as well as mandatory drug testing.

“I decided I wanted to get rid of the problem,” Most says. “I didn’t just want to do the time and come back out and be right back where I was.”

So she dove wholeheartedly into a routine that can be numbingly daunting.

“You have to decide first that you really want to do the work,” she says. “It’s not just something you just throw yourself into to get out of jail or trouble. If you go into it with that attitude, you’re not gonna make it.”

And Most was determined to make it.

“It became my new part-time job,” she says. “I actually couldn’t work full-time when I first started. It was approximately 15 hours a week. The first 90 days are the most intense. I had to do a 90 in 90, which is 90 AA meetings in 90 days. One a day for 90 days straight. That was intense. Not only that, but I had to go to substance-abuse group therapy through the VA hospital.”

And now here she is, beaming as Mike McGlown, the Veterans Court probation officer, tells all assembled just how far Most has come in the last nine months: “Today is her eighth review hearing,” he says, “and she has 229 days of sobriety. Her attitude is always good, Judge, so Holly is really doing terrific.”

A smattering round of applause breaks out as the judge homes in again on Most.

“I think you’re making real progress,” he says. “I’ve noticed a real transformation. I mean, before, you thought you were a good airman.” MacKenzie pauses here, leaning in a bit more before continuing. “But I’m not sure how you felt about yourself as a person. I’m beginning to see you feel you are a good person.” … another pause … “and I really like that. I like that a lot. And it’s beginning to show on you. The smile isn’t as forced. And I want you to keep it up.”

More applause as Holly approaches the bench, shakes hands with the judge, and happily heads for the exit as McGlown calls out the name of the next vet on the docket.

The bespectacled MacKenzie, who’s served as a judge of the 52nd District Court since 1988, is 63, and at 6-foot-3, can be an intimidating force in any room — never mind behind his bench. Both his cropped hair and the beard he’s worn since his 20s have turned a Santa Claus-white over the years. And he’s a nationally renowned and well-respected progressive when it comes to his views on the trauma many veterans suffer as a result of their time in combat.

“These are individuals who, for one reason or another, suffered a wound in the service of their country,” he says. “And when I say a wound, I mean a mental wound, an invisible wound. They started out as honorable people. They started out being willing to serve their country at a time when it needed them. They came back wounded. Call it PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Call it TBI (traumatic brain injury). Call it what you will, but there’s wound there; we just can’t see it. And they try and self-medicate.”

The traditional response is to lump these psychologically damaged veterans into the standard court and judicial system, where incarceration is often the inevitable outcome. Which is where MacKenzie seized the opportunity — not only to change the court culture, but also to change the lives of people whose true problems were being overlooked, if not completely ignored.

“Addiction is a health issue,” Mackenzie says emphatically. “If you think of it just as a criminal-justice thing, which we’ve done far too long, you end up with a lot of people in prison, and you don’t solve their problem. But if you think of it as a health issue, where you make them deal with the thing, then what you get is success.”

And the success rate of the program is staggering: Of the 80 veterans he brought in, only four have failed to graduate. “And none of them, ” MacKenzie says proudly, “ none of them — not even the four who failed — have been re-arrested.”

Twice a month, on every other Monday, the vets in the program converge on MacKenzie’s Novi courthouse. They assemble in the waiting room, chatting as they sip their coffee and soda.

At 63, Marine veteran Jim Edwards is one of the oldest vets in the room. He served in Vietnam in 1969 and readily discusses the alcoholism that’s plagued him for much of his life.

“This holds you more accountable than the regular court system,” says Edwards, who’s been in the program since January 2012. “It’s like an accountability partner, by reporting in and trying to get you over this hump of whatever your addiction or problem is. And once you get over that hump, then you continue with your recovery on the outside.

“It’s a great recovery program,” he adds, “but it’s like any type of program: If you don’t put your heart into it, it’s not going to work. But I think Judge MacKenzie has done a wonderful job with the veterans I see coming through here.”

More vets arrive and mingle. Meanwhile, MacKenzie, his staff, and support team are just down the hall in his office, meticulously going over the file of each vet, assessing progress and addressing any issues or potential problems or obstacles to success.

There’s an attorney, working pro bono, who acts as an advocate and adviser for each of the participants. There’s also a representative from the Veterans Administration, who weighs in on the wide range of VA-supported programs available for everyone. Mike McGlown, the probation officer, recites updates:

> One vet found out his ACL is torn and requires surgery.The VA rep will line up an appointment with a surgeon.

> Another wants to get his driver’s license but needs to attend meetings more consistently. The judge decides to “dangle a carrot” — if he keeps going to the meetings, he can apply for his license in 30 days.

> Yet another has completed his substance-abuse program at the VA and has made what everyone agrees is a miraculous turnaround, both physically and emotionally. The judge observes that someone who’s pumping iron and not drinking is going to look better and feel better.

And on and on through every file. And as each case is wrapped up, the judge digs into a manila folder containing one of the rewards each vet will receive for his or her good report — a free pass to a movie, a reward card for Meijer, a complimentary meal at McDonald’s or Quiznos.

“These little rewards are important,” MacKenzie says. “Studies tell us that once you build a structure around a person and they know it and know what the sanctions are, the positive rewards, the praise — just the little things — make a big, big difference.”

Just ask Holly Most. Not that long ago, she was days away from a lengthy jail sentence and an uncertain future. Today, her life has been transformed. Most passed the halfway point in the program late last year, is living with her two daughters and working part-time as a care-giver for an elderly woman. She’s been sober for a year now, “the longest I’ve ever been since I started drinking,” she says. “And that was at a very early age.

“I’m just so happy I have this program,” she says, grinning. “Even I can’t believe all I’ve accomplished.”

And thanks to Judge MacKenzie and his revolutionary program, she has plenty of company.