Wave of vets in courts trips alarm.
December 22, 2008
courts devoted to U.S. war veterans are emerging across the country, from New York to Oklahoma to California, as increasing
numbers of soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are showing up as defendants with a special set of problems.
court judges are joining with local prosecutors, public defenders, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs officials and local
lawyer volunteers to create courts with veterans-only case proceedings, because they have seen a common thread of post-traumatic
stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, head injuries and mental illness underlying the veterans' crimes.
hoping the special courts — stocked with veteran mentors, Veterans Affairs staff, volunteer attorneys and social workers
— can help rehabilitate veterans and avoid convictions that might cost veterans their future military benefits.
County, Calif., Superior Court Judge Wendy Lindley created California's first criminal treatment court for U.S. military veterans
in November after a 27-year-old man who had served in Iraq died in a drug overdose within weeks of passing through her courtroom.
just thought, 'I really don't want to see anything like this happen to anyone again,'" Lindley said a few weeks after starting
up the veterans' treatment court in Santa Ana, Calif.
The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that 1.16 million of
all adults arrested last year — or nearly 10% — served in the military. While there are no definitive statistics
on the number of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, judges across the country say they're seeing recently returned
soldiers in their courtrooms more often. They are concerned that PTSD and brain injuries underlie drug and alcohol abuse that
leads to arrests for everything from domestic violence to driving while under the influence.
A separate niche
a need, and I think that need is growing," said Judge Michael E. McCarthy, a judge in the Allegheny County, Pa., Court of
Common Pleas in Pittsburgh, who estimates that three-quarters of the veterans he sees served in Iraq or Afghanistan. "It's
a separate sort of niche that needs to be addressed," said McCarthy, who plans to start a veterans court in Pittsburgh early
Another veterans court is planned for Janesville, Wis., one started this month in Tulsa, Okla., and courts
in other states, including Massachusetts and Illinois, are reviewing the idea. All are following the lead of the first veterans
court, launched in January in Buffalo, N.Y., by Judge Robert Russell of Buffalo City Court.
Russell pursued the idea
of a court exclusively for veterans in Buffalo after he realized he was seeing more young veterans in his drug and mental
illness treatment courts. He believed they might benefit from being in the courtroom together, given the military's strong
sense of camaraderie, he said. He collaborated with staff from the Buffalo VA Medical Center to design a court that would
handle only veterans who had committed nonviolent felonies and misdemeanors.
In addition to steering veterans
into back-to-back hearings in one courtroom, the Buffalo court brought volunteer veteran mentors and Veterans Affairs staff
into the courtroom to support the defendants and guide them in accessing military benefits that might help solve substance
abuse, health, marriage, employment and financial problems.
"You have a totally therapeutic, supportive environment
to afford a veteran the best opportunity to be successful," Russell said.
Since starting on Jan. 15, the Buffalo court
has absorbed 82 veterans into its program, with 65% of those veterans having served in the current Iraq or Afghanistan wars,
said Hank Pirowski, project director for Buffalo's treatment courts. So far, the court is planning to graduate six veterans
from the 12- to 16-month program next month, with only two having been unable to avoid convictions, he said.
Local prosecutors, public defenders and other state officials, as well as private attorney volunteers,
are eager to pitch in. Nick Chiarkas, the state public defender for Wisconsin, has helped push for the courts in Wisconsin
as a complement to the law clinics that are helping veterans with civil law issues.
"Not only are you helping them,
you're also saving a great deal of money in the system, and you're reducing the crime rate in Wisconsin," Chiarkas said. "It's
a win for everybody, and my bias is that I think we owe them."
That's a sentiment shared by Lisa Avery, a lawyer in
Santa Ana, Calif., who's volunteering in the veterans court there; Walter Bunt, a K&L Gates partner in Pittsburgh with
a son in the Air Force who is supporting the veterans court in his city; and Margaret Cassidy, an in-house attorney at PricewaterhouseCoopers
in Washington and a former Pennsylvania prosecutor who helped win an Allegheny County Bar Association grant to start the Pittsburgh
"I think it's a population that's not just underserved, it's unserved," said Avery, who is starting the Veterans
Legal Resource Center in Santa Ana.
The bulk of the funding for the courts is coming from Veterans Affairs, but some
funding has also come from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health
and Human Services. State legislatures are also weighing funding proposals, and a bill pending in Congress would provide $25
million for a courts program through the Department of Justice for five years if it passes.
Supporters are gravitating
to the concept because of its effectiveness, albeit based on limited results, in reducing recidivism among the veterans. They're
also latching onto it in light of the difficulty veterans are having in plowing through the federal system to get military
health and disability benefits and treatment.
Tulsa County, Okla., District Court Judge Sarah Day Smith, who has also
overseen drug treatment courts, worked with Veterans Affairs to start a veterans court for nonviolent felons this month. She
became a backer of the approach after visiting Russell's court in October and discovering that 158 veterans were arrested
in Tulsa County that month.
"Oklahoma is one of the states that will get a huge influx of returning veterans, and so
because of that there is some real concern," Smith said.
Smith is slowly taking on the 38 veterans eligible for the
court program and hopes to have 50 in it by next year.
"They gave so much to us and instead of saying 'we don't need
you anymore' or 'the best we can offer is to send you to prison,' this program offers them some light and some hope to get
back on their feet," Smith said.
The Santa Ana court handles veterans who have committed any type of crime, whether
violent or not. Under the California penal code, any veteran who has served in a combat zone, and has developed psychological
or substance abuse problems as a result, is eligible to be treated as opposed to jailed, Lindley said.
Pittsburgh judge, who was a Navy Seabee during the Vietnam War, and Judge James Daley, who sits on the Rock County Circuit
Court bench in Janesville, Wis., and is a Vietnam veteran and reservist Army general, both say they believe the specialized
courts will be more successful in turning around the veterans' lives and stopping the criminal behavior by addressing underlying
"We have an obligation to try to help these folks," McCarthy said.