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New York judge urges special courts for veterans

on Fri, 2008-10-31 20:09

By Steven Walters

Madison- Mental health, law enforcement and political leaders and veterans called Monday for the creation of specialized Wisconsin courts for military veterans, citing a growing number who return from service in Iraq and Afghanistan with emotional and other critical needs.

"It's extremely important," said Judge Robert T. Russell Jr., who in January began presiding over Veterans Treatment Court in Buffalo, N.Y. He spoke at a Wisconsin Veterans Intervention Program sponsored by the state Public Defender's Office.

Russell said his court has a "nothing but veterans" approach.

That means former service members accused of nonviolent crimes are supported by mental health and Veterans Administration professionals, have volunteer mentors who served in the military assigned to work with them, and regularly return to court to have their progress monitored.

There are 23 million American veterans, including 1.6 million who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russell said.

Many need help for alcohol or drug abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, anger management, job training or homelessness, he added. Yet they often do not go to the Veterans Administration for help.

Three out of every four veterans who appear before him don't have jobs, for example, he said.

Buffalo's Veterans Treatment Court, the first of its kind in the nation, was formed because "something more needed to be done" to help former service members, the judge said.

Russell said he conducts an open dialogue with veterans who appear before him, which is different than the adversarial setting in other criminal courtrooms.

Juneau County District Attorney Scott Southworth, a National Guard major who commanded a military unit in Iraq for more than 12 months, said Wisconsin's next step should be funding experimental veterans' courts statewide.

Southworth said every combat veteran that returns home must readjust mentally. Some behave recklessly, endangering both themselves and those around them, he added.

"How they deal with it when they come home can vary," he added. "If we intervene, we can save lives."