VFW Magazine — March 2011
Change Language:
Veterans Courts Offer Second Chance
Fred Minnick

T He American judicial system is showing compassion toward war veterans.

More than 50 “veterans treatment courts” have surfaced across the country. First established in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008, veterans courts allow qualifying veterans to undergo therapeutic rehabilitation outside of prison.

Veterans court proponents, like Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) And Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Ronald D. Castille, believe the veterans court system could be an answer to a serious societal problem. They say that crimes are sometimes symptoms of wartime trauma, and that the court system Should account for veterans’ sacrifices.

Opponents say veterans deserve no special treatment. They say these courts are soft on crime, according to attorney J.Kim Wright, who is the publisher of CuttingEdgeLaw.com and is working on a documentary about veterans courts.

“Some prosecutors say veterans need to suck it up and fit back into society,”Wright says

However, momentum is leaning toward the current veterans court model.

U. S. Attorney General Eric Holder, retired generals, renowned judges and even mainstream media, like Newsweek, have all spoken in support of veterans courts.

Judges like James P. Daley, a retired Wisconsin National Guard brigadier general, of Rock County Circuit Court, who have faced high numbers of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans Guilty of committing alcohol- and drugrelated crimes, have publicly campaigned for their fellow circuit court judges to adopt veterans courts.

“I believe it is incumbent upon us to do all that we can to provide these returning veterans with access to treatment necessary to fully return them to their families and civilian occupations with a decent chance for long-term recovery and return to normalcy,” Daley wrote in The Wisconsin Defender.

“For me, this means we must create a bridge between the services already provided to veterans by the VA and to the local and state courts that deal with the effects of a veteran’s negative interaction with his community.”

Who Qualifies?

In July 2008, Kerry and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) introduced the Services, Education and Rehabilitation for Veterans (SERV) Act to create veteran drug treatment courts, which would have created one federal system. But Congress took no action and it never became law. Thus, states mostly foot the bill for funding these courts.

Meanwhile, individual court districts were creating veterans courts under the “problem-solving courts” model that was established in 1989 in Miami, Fla.

Each court has its own parameters for veterans qualifying.

In the three California veterans courts, veterans must have committed an offense as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and/or traumatic brain injury in order to qualify.

Once in the system and overseen by a mentor, the court’s mission is to provide Non-adversarial treatment for combat veterans in the criminal justice system over an 18-month period. This treatment has worked so far.

In the original Buffalo Veterans Court, 90% of offenders completed a similar program without repeating their illegal behavior.

But many veteran advocates believe the system is inconsistent and ignores the one class of veterans who need it most: those who commit violent crimes.

Violent Offenders

Some courts only consider non-violent offenders, such as drunk drivers or drug violators.

But it’s the violence-prone who need the veteran courts most, says Robert Alvarez, a former Marine and Coloradobased psychologist with the Wounded Warrior Project.

“The courts seem to cherry-pick the cases they want to put in veteran courts,” Alvarez says. “We stood these courts up to help young men and women who have uncharacteristically done something criminal as a result of their injuries from the battlefield.”

Alvarez says some courts only want to take on “kinder” crimes, like selling drugs or stealing a loaf of bread from a 7-Eleven.

One of his clients assaulted a woman talking on a cell phone during a flashback.In Iraq and Afghanistan, cell phones are used to trigger improvised explosive devices.

“Here was a guy who had served in Iraq and had a bad case of PTSD,” Alvarez said. “One night he’s out at the pool hall with buddies and not intoxicated. He looks across the street and sees a lady on a cell phone in her vehicle. He goes into a flashback and runs over to the vehicle screaming: ‘Get out, put the cell phone down! Put the cell phone down!’ He’s got a pool cue, assaults her and smashes her to the ground.”

Alvarez said the woman was not seriously injured, but was emotionally upset. But she objected to the veteran going to a veterans court.

“This is a classic case of a war-injured combat veteran acting out because of his injury,” Alvarez contends. “And the DA, because his victim objected, said no [to the veterans court]. These men and women are damaged because of their service to their country. They deserve this chance in spite of what some victim might say or object to.”

Alvarez believes veterans deserve treatment not punishment. That’s the disconnect in the court system, according to the psychologist.

“I’ve had so many cases of guys who have gone to prison,” Alvarez says. “Prisons are full of mentally-ill and drug-addicted war veterans. These populations are treatable, a high percentage of them, if we took the approach of rehabilitating them rather than incarcerating them.

“But we’d rather spend $60,000 or $70,000 a year keeping an individual locked up in a state prison, than spend $20,000 or $30,000 a year getting someone the help they need to become productive citizens in society.”