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Specialized Courts for Veterans Can Help Reclaim Lives

Justice may be blind, but that doesn’t mean the people who administer courts can’t see the distinctions that exist between those who find themselves in legal difficulties.

In the past two decades or so, specialized courts have been created to deal with drug offenders, those with mental illness and even prostitutes. After all, most of the people in those groups are more victims than offenders.

The same approach to diverting men and women in specific groups from punishment and into treatment has more recently been brought to bear on veterans accused of breaking the law.

It’s a welcome development, one that, with luck, will spread quickly across the country. In fact, it already has.

“The first veterans’ court opened in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008,” according to the website of the National Center for State Courts. “The veterans’ court model is based on drug treatment and/or mental health treatment courts. Substance abuse or mental health treatment is offered as an alternative to incarceration. Typically, veteran mentors assist with the programs. An important issue that has to be addressed is the eligibility for veterans’ courts in terms of whether charges involving felonies or crimes of violence will be allowed. The inclusion of offenders charged with inter-family violence is also of grave concern to policy makers.

“Robert Russell, a judge in Buffalo, New York, after noticing an increasing number of veterans on his docket, in 2008 created the first court specialised and adapted to meet the needs of veterans,” a June 2011 article in The Economist states. “Every Tuesday, Mr Russell presides over ‘Veterans Treatment Court,’ a hybrid of drug and mental-health courts. It aims to divert people from the traditional criminal system. It provides veterans suffering from substance abuse, alcoholism and mental-health issues, with treatment, support, training and housing.

“Each veteran is assigned a mentor, also a veteran from the same service, who acts as a coach and, if need be, an ‘ass-kicker.’ If the veterans follow the program’s regimen, which involves regular court appearances, mandatory drug treatment and testing, they could see their charges reduced or dismissed and they could stay out of jail.”

“When they left for war, the law enforcement community cheered them. And when they returned, we celebrated their return as heroes,” Penny Wilson, Ph.D., founder of Hope4Heroes, a nonprofit serving veterans, was quoted as saying on the website of the Division of Addictive Services, Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities. “It is tragic that these young men and women are now becoming entangled in the criminal justice system, especially because prior to combat, 95 percent of those being arrested had never been involved with criminal justice. Law enforcement officials are having to deal with returning combat veterans who were never in trouble before the war.”

A July 9, 2012, story in The Roanoke Times by Laurence Hammack focuses on a successful diversion program at the VA Medical Center in Salem:

“The program, which began in April 2011, provides an array of treatment services to veterans who find themselves facing criminal charges, misdemeanors, mostly, in the federal courts of Western Virginia. Modeled after drug courts, Veterans Treatment Court addresses the underlying cause of criminal activity, whether it’s substance abuse, mental illness or a combination of the two, To do that, court officials must drop their normal adversarial roles. Prosecutors don’t prosecute. Defense lawyers stop defending. The judge withholds judgment.

“For at least six months, the sole focus is on treatment and recovery.

“And when the system works, the defendant walks away with no criminal conviction, a better veteran for the experience.”

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