As a volunteer for the Community Veteran Justice Project (CVJP), decorated United States Marine and rehabilitation counselor Juan Diego Sanabria’s mission is to help fellow veterans navigate the criminal justice system in California. The Golden State is home to more veterans (1.8 million) than any other state and 7.5% of them live below the poverty line. As a result, many of them struggle with mental health — whose root causes can be mostly traced back to the time they served in the military — and substance abuse that often lead them on a downward spiral and problems with the criminal justice system.
In order to connect with his fellow veterans, Sanabria shares his own story, one that begins with the moment he hit rock bottom several years ago:
“Your Honor,” Sanabria said to the court judge in his own defense, “I am a Brown, tattooed male and if you send me to prison today, I will be targeted because nobody will care that these are not gang-related tattoos but military ones, and I’ll end up in a fight. As a former US Marine, I have been trained to defend myself and thrive in chaos and violence, which means I won’t ever get out of that prison. Please, allow me to make this right by granting me diversion.”
Sanabria, a Nicaragua-born and California-raised veteran, had accumulated five DUIs because of his alcohol and drug abuse. Not long before that day in court, in a drunken state, he had called his mother, asking her if she had seen his gun. His plan was to commit suicide. His mother sensed what his intentions were and convinced him to go to sleep instead, saving his life.
The next morning, Sanabria understood he was at an all-time low.
“As a male,” Sanabria says, “I was always taught to just suck it up, push it down and move on. So, I never thought that something was wrong with my mental health after I came back home from my tours in Iraq.”
Although many of his close friends told him he seemed different, Sanabria was in denial. Still, the many underlining issues of his undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder began manifesting themselves in ways Sanabria confesses he was not prepared to deal with.
“I resented the fact that I was still here but many guys I had served with no longer were,” he says.
Unaware that he was also dealing with survivor’s guilt along with PTSD, Sanabria began self-medicating. What started as a slight buzz during a get-together quickly turned into binge drinking and cocaine use on a daily basis, ultimately leading to Sanabria getting into fights. The legal consequences of his behavior started piling up: drunk in public, assault charges, and five DUIs — the highest one being three times over the legal limit, making it a felony in the state of California. As such, he was facing many years in prison.
He had heard through the grapevine of California Veteran Statutes that are designed to assist veterans struggling with mental health and facing criminal charges.
However, Sanabria soon found out that his court-appointed defense attorney — like many others — had no idea what that was and, therefore, could not help him. Sanabria rolled up his sleeves and began researching and studying his case, eventually asking the judge to grant him diversion, which would afford him the opportunity to attend an intense outpatient program instead of serving time in prison.
“When I was granted diversion, I was still thinking as an addict,” Sanabria confesses. “I thought I was going to do this program, get my criminal record cleaned up, and then go back to my old ways. But the program was so good that, from the beginning, I thought: ‘What if I really give it a try?’”
To complete the program, Sanabria had to attend regular meetings multiple times a week, go to therapy and be subjected to random drug and alcohol tests. After 18 months, he graduated the program.
“Doing therapy allowed me to understand and address the many mental health issues I had been suffering from because of my PTSD,” Sanabria says. “I became a success story for the program and wanted to give back. That’s when I began volunteering with CVJP.”
CVJP is a grassroots entity “dedicated to ensuring current and former military service members receive the information, support, and services they need” to use California Veteran Statues to improve their lives. “CVJP provides specific services, policy advocacy, and community education to assist justice-involved service members/veterans with obtaining alternative sentencing for some felonies, and diversion for misdemeanor cases. This can result in treatment rather than incarceration, some cases being dismissed, and records being sealed.”
CVJP is the guidance, helping hand, and supportive allied that every veteran navigating the criminal justice system needs to have by their side. “We need to raise awareness of CVJP, primarily among veterans and let them know that we are here to help you,” says Sanabria, who wishes he had CVJP when he was navigating the complex criminal justice system on his own many years ago.