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Army an option in school-gun case

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A student who brought a gun to Indian Creek High School could have faced up to nine years in prison but instead plans to join the military.

Clayton Sleighter, a 17-year-old Trafalgar resident, was charged as an adult with carrying a handgun without a license on school grounds and possession of marijuana. The handgun charge was a Class C felony, which could have meant time in prison and would have resulted in a criminal record that he would have to put on job applications and would have had lifelong consequences.

But the Johnson County Prosecutor’s Office has put his case on hold until next year, so that Sleighter can join the military.

If Sleighter enlists after turning 18 in the spring, Prosecutor Brad Cooper will drop the charges right before he is sent to boot camp. He’d dismiss the charges since the military won’t accept felons or enlistees facing pending criminal charges.

Cooper said he would refile charges if Sleighter got kicked out or otherwise failed to complete his military commitment.

Sleighter’s attorney, Franklin lawyer John Norris, declined to comment.

The days of judges telling young men they have to choose either prison or the Army are long gone, Cooper said. That practice is no longer legal, but state law allows charges to be dropped to let someone serve in the military as long as it’s their choice, he said.

When young people want to join the military after committing crimes, Cooper sometimes offers full-time active-duty enlistment as an alternative for criminal prosecution. He said he makes military service an option for nonviolent first-time offenders between the ages of 18 and 25 because it’s typically more effective than probation at getting their lives back on track, Cooper said.

Over the past six years, about two dozen people facing charges have chosen to enlist in the Army, Marine Corps or Navy as an alternative to criminal prosecution. Seven people who the prosecutor’s office dropped charges against currently are enlisted.

Those offenders committed criminal mischief, broke into a barn or stole $200, Cooper said. He said he always gets the victims’ permission to dismiss charges in lieu of military service and asks the offenders to pay restitution before they go in.

Only one has gotten into trouble or had a run-in with the law, Cooper said.

“I’m under the belief that there is no better rehabilitative mechanism or path for kids in the 18-to-20 range than a drill sergeant yelling at them,” he said. “They’re going to learn what they have to learn and learn more than they would in an alcohol class.”

Lt. Col. Shawn D. Gardner, the Indiana National Guard’s commander of recruiting and retention, said military service can help young people who might be unruly or directionless.

“I’ve been fortunate to witness life-changing transformations,” he said. “I’ve seen young men with no real goals until the military helped instill a sense of purpose to do great things.”

They learn discipline, attention to detail and values that help make them successful in life, Gardner said. For example, they come to appreciate the values of duty, respect and selfless service, he said.

Defense attorneys know that Cooper offers enlistment as an option in some cases and will advise their clients that it’s a possibility if they’re interested.

Cooper said he determined that military service would be a good choice for Sleighter since he’s expressed interest in serving and turning his life around. He said he’ll go forward with the charges if Sleighter doesn’t get admitted into the military or if he’s found ineligible for any reason.

In August, Sleighter had a semiautomatic handgun in his car when he got into an argument with a group of students about alcohol, according to a Trafalgar Police Department report. He pulled out the gun and cocked it before driving away, the report said.

Police later found marijuana and digital scales commonly used to measure drugs in his bedroom while they were searching for the gun, according to the report.

He no longer is a student at the high school, according to the guidance office. However, he has enrolled in another school and is working to make sure he can get into the service, Cooper said. He must have a high school degree in order to enlist.

Sleighter is one of the few who qualify for the military as a alternative to jail, Cooper said. He estimates that his office has 15,000 to 20,000 open misdemeanor and felony cases, while seven of those charged are currently enlisted.

Cooper monitors the people in the program personally to ensure they complete their service. He also screens who is eligible.

“We don’t let murderers or rapists do it,” he said. “It’s more run-of-the-mill offenders who made a mistake where no one was harmed.”

The young people get discipline from the military, Cooper said. They also learn lifelong lessons about responsibility even if they serve only a single four-year term, he said. They get used to going to work and paying bills.

“Going in and through the military is vastly more rehabilitative than most common practices,” he said. “All of a sudden drill sergeants put them through the ringer, and they get shipped overseas into harm’s way. They see people killed. It matures them. They’re part of something. They’re defending the country and keeping it safe.”

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