Americans Who Support PTSD Veterans
Courts for veterans spreading across U.S.
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Courts for veterans spreading across U.S.

http://www.law.com/jsp/nlj/PubArticleNLJ.jsp?id=1202426915992&slreturn=1&hbxlogin=1

Wave of vets in courts trips alarm.

December 22, 2008


State criminal 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.

State 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.

They're 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.

Orange 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.

"I 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

"There's 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 next year.

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.

'Unserved' population

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 court.

"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.

McCarthy, the 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 issues.

"We have an obligation to try to help these folks," McCarthy said.
 
"A man good enough to shed his blood for his country, is good enough to receive a square deal afterwards . . ."
-- Theodore Roosevelt
 
"The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive veterans of early wars were treated and appreciated by our nation."
 - George Washington


GOD  BLESS  OUR  VETERANS
 

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~ WHY DO THESE TWO MARINES LOOK DRUNK... ~
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