El Paso Times
By Chris Roberts
EL PASO -- Combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder who are accused of certain crimes may soon have a choice between a trial or mental-health treatment.
El Paso judges last week took the first step in creating a Veterans Mental Health Treatment Court. They authorized the program for Judge Ricardo Herrera's county criminal court.
"I just think we need to get ahead of the curve a little bit and get this in place," said Herrera, who proposed the idea to the Council of Judges.
He said the court would make sense for El Paso because of Fort Bliss and its explosive growth. The post has about 20,000 active-duty soldiers and is expected to grow to 34,000 by 2013.
The court would be geared to active-duty soldiers or veterans who served in combat zones or other hazardous assignments and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, said Cesar Prieto, who works in Herrera's court.
He said the court for veterans would include felonies and misdemeanors, but not the most serious crimes, such as murder and rape. Prosecutors would have to approve a defendant's participation in the program.
The plan is still subject to approval by the El Paso County Commissioners Court. One member, Dan Haggerty, says he supports the idea.
"They used to put a rubber band around your head and tell you to snap out of it," said Haggerty, a Vietnam War veteran. "But some of these people can't. ... Absolutely, we need to move forward with it."
Counties can create such programs under a bill
approved by the Texas Legislature. It provides only general guidelines, so details of the El Paso program would be worked out among Fort Bliss attorneys, Beaumont Army Medical Center officials, the El Paso County district attorney's staff, Veterans Affairs officials and others.
Participants in the veterans court would have to have a primary diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, Prieto said. Other service-related disabilities that could be considered are traumatic brain injury and severe depression.
Crimes that could be handled by the court include assault, possession of marijuana, drunken driving and family violence, Prieto said.
The court would have the authority to require attendance in rehabilitation, educational, vocational, medical, psychiatric or substance-abuse programs, he said. It also could require that a participant take medication.
Treatment would last at least six months, but no longer than the period of community supervision normally required for the charged offense. Participants who did not complete the program would be prosecuted.
The court for veterans would be available only to those facing charges in the civilian system. A soldier arrested on post would still be subject to the military justice system, including the possibility of court-martial.
Herrera's staff is preparing to apply for a state grant that would provide $500,000 for one year to create a mental-health court for veterans. If the program is successful, it could qualify for $500,000 each year for five more years. Prieto said the court could be running by the end of the year.
"As more counties follow El Paso's lead, we will be able to keep more veterans out of jail and quickly get them the treatment they need," said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who sponsored the enabling legislation. "After successfully completing their treatment program, veterans can have their cases dismissed and avoid a criminal conviction, which will ensure they can get a job and provide for their families."
State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, said the program did not give veterans a "get-out-of-jail-free card." The requirements would be rigorous, he said, and the goal would be to transform an offender into a productive citizen.
"Our success in El Paso is tied to the troops at Fort Bliss and we have to take care of them," Moody said. "If we don't help them, we'll have to take care of it at the back end."
Wgrz TV 2 On Your Side
By Brian Tumulty
WASHINGTON - An experimental court that addresses misbehavior by veterans to keep them from committing more serious crimes received national attention Wednesday at a congressional hearing.
Robert Russell, presiding judge of Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court, told members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee that he started the program in January 2008 as a one-year experiment to find better ways to help veterans deal with substance abuse, alcoholism and mental health issues. The committee may decide the program is worth promoting elsewhere in the country. Russell estimated 18-20 veterans are currently in court-ordered treatment programs in Buffalo.
"These people are not bad," Patrick Welch, director of the Erie County Veterans Services Agency. "They just got hooked up with the wrong people, the wrong places and the wrong things. Most of them are there because they did not have a good support system before they went into the military.''
The concept behind the veterans court is to avoid sentencing a veteran to jail and provide treatment instead, said Christopher Deutsch, a spokesman for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. Non-veterans with similar problems are eligible for drug court, which operates the same way.
"Jail is always an option when a participant is not living up to their obligations to the court,'' he said.
Buffalo's experiment with a veterans-only court has been copied in neighboring Rochester and eight other communities - Orange, Riverside and Santa Clara counties in California, Cook and Madison counties in Illinois, Tulsa, Okla., Olympia, Wash., and Anchorage, Alaska.
Other courts - including a drug court in Anchorage - already were offering special services to veterans. But given the high number of young Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder and end up charged with a crime, Buffalo went a step further and set up a court-run mentoring system. The mentors serve as a confidantes and help veterans apply to government agencies for food stamps, Medicaid or housing. The program also has found apartment and jobs for veterans.
"We should be proactive rather than reactive,'' Russell told the House committee. "We needed to more fully to give them an opportunity to have stability in their lives.''
The director of the Buffalo court's mentoring program, Jack O'Connor, said Russell is analogous to a commanding officer and the mentors act much like non-commissioned officers who make sure his orders are carried out.
The 35 volunteer mentors - who include several women - are veterans from all branches of the services. Organizers of the program found that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans often did not want a Vietnam veteran as a mentor, preferring someone who also served in Iraq or Afghanistan, according to testimony Wednesday.
One Marine veteran declined to accept a Navy veteran as a mentor, preferring another Marine. He finally accepted a police officer who also had served in Iraq. "Who better deserves a second chance than a veteran?'' O'Connor asked lawmakers.
By Matt Kelley
Following on the successes of drug courts and mental health courts, Illinois and Nevada this year created veterans' courts to focus on the unique needs and community of veterans charged with crimes. The movement toward specialized courts makes sense - by focusing on a specific population a court can often better manage alternative sentences and connect defendants with state services providing housing, counseling, health care and more. Anything that makes the courts less of a conveyor belt is a good thing in my book.
I've written about the success of drug courts and mental health courts, but the jury is still out on the brand-new veterans' courts. While there is near unanimous support for drug and mental health courts, there's some debate over a policy that singles out veterans. In Nevada, the ACLU has opposed the initiative. Allen Lichtenstein, the general counsel for the ACLU of Nevada, said veterans’ courts are tantamount to creating special courts for “crimes committed by police officers, teachers or politicians."
I disagree with the ACLU's position on this one. We have specialized services for veterans and connecting defendants with those services is critical to avoiding long prison sentences and potential future crimes. About 10 percent of the U.S. prison population - more than 200,000 people - served in the military. With the worrisome rate of post traumatic stress disorder in soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, this initiative may have arrived just in time.
The new courts in Illinois and Nevada will be modeled after the nation's first veterans' court, in Buffalo, N.Y. There, judge Robert Russell (above, at the bench) says the specialized treatment for veterans helps build community and opportunity.
"They look to the right or to the left, they're sitting there with another vet, and it's a more calming, therapeutic environment," Russell said. "Rather than them being of the belief that 'people don't really understand me,' or 'they don't know what it's like' - well, it's a room full of folks who do."
By Lisa Falkenberg
SPRING — Just after Independence Day in 2007, Marty Gonzalez’s picture was on the front page of the Houston Chronicle under the headline “Hometown Hero” for his valor as a Marine, his three Purple Heart medals and his Bronze Star for saving American lives in Fallujah.
Not two years later, the Marine from Spring was standing in the criminal courtroom of Judge Marc Carter, charged with felony DWI with a child passenger.
At first, the judge knew nothing of Gonzalez’s story. He didn’t know that a purple scar snaking past his right elbow was the result of nine surgeries after two bullets from an insurgent’s AK-47 tore into him as he cleared houses during the second siege of Fallujah.
Or, that, in just one day in November 2004, Gonzalez had charged up a stairwell infested with insurgents, braving a hail of small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire, not once, but 11 times, while wounded, to help a Marine escape, recover the bodies of comrades and kill several insurgents threatening other squad members.
Or, that, since Gonzalez returned from Iraq, he’d been diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. That the pain wouldn’t stop. The anger helped destroy his marriage. The nightmares of buddies dying wouldn’t let him sleep.
Carter knew only that the wiry, 28-year-old before him had risked the life of his 3-year-old son when he drove his truck impaired late one night, falling asleep at the wheel and plowing into a house in Tomball. Luckily, no one was home, and Gonzalez’s son, Adryan, was strapped in his car seat and escaped injury.
In an interview last week, Gonzalez told me he had taken too many pain pills that night “just trying to relax.” His divorce had just become final; he’d gotten custody of his son. A buddy tried to grab his car keys, but Gonzalez insisted on driving.
“Here I was,” he said, “going from a good guy to a felon in one night of stupidity.”
But then the prosecutor, Terrance Windham, a felony division chief, did something prosecutors rarely do. He granted Gonzalez’s request for a pre-trial diversion, an option that would send him to rehab instead of prison.
Two fellow veterans
Once Carter learned Gonzalez’s story, he agreed that the young man with the heroic record and no previous trouble with the law deserved a second chance. Gonzalez certainly had a bit of luck, or fate, on his side. Not only was Windham a veteran, but so was the judge. Carter is a former Army captain and his father was a career Army officer who served in Vietnam.
Carter, 49, a Republican appointed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2003, has made it his personal mission to look out for veterans. About two years ago, he worked with Harris County’s pre-trial services office to flag veterans when they’re arrested and notify the VA hospital.
In March alone, the system logged 350 arrests of veterans, some of whom may have been arrested more than once.
Carter said his experience with Gonzalez convinced him that he needed to do more to prevent wounded warriors from getting lost in the system. “Once you’re a convicted felon, it’s the scarlet letter. The hero designation goes away and is replaced with ‘convicted felon,’ ” Carter said.
Earlier this month, Carter testified in favor of a bill by state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, that requires certain judges to establish “deferred prosecution programs” for military service members and veterans whose alleged crime can be linked to a combat-related brain injury or mental illness.
If the prosecutor agrees to a veteran participating in the program, and the veteran completes treatment and other court-imposed conditions, the case can be dismissed and the arrest record expunged. The bill has passed a committee and is awaiting a vote by the full Senate.
Letting the anger go
Carter said veterans would be judged on a case-by-case basis, and the bill isn’t intended for those who repeatedly offend or commit extremely violent crimes.
“Nobody’s in the business of making excuses for crime,” Carter said. “But we have some responsibility, in my opinion, for those who serve.”
Gonzalez appreciates what’s been done for him. He said he’s progressing with treatment and conditions of his probation. He’s starting a new job, working with other wounded warriors. He’s let go much of the anger. He’s forgiven God. He’s found solace in his family, children and a new church.
“I realized ... there’s nothing I can do that will bring anybody back, and I need to stop going down the path that I was going down because it means self-destruction,” he said.
Gonzalez still has a lot of healing to do. A loud sound, a familiar smell can transport him back to Iraq. He still has nightmares that he can’t find his gun. He spends hours watching YouTube videos of Fallujah.
But at least he got a second chance at a normal life that might never have been possible if he’d become lost in the justice system.
There are many others who deserve the same chance.
The Third Branch
By Amanda Todd, Court Information Officer
Participating in a conference on veterans in the criminal justice system in June are, from left, Steve House, case manager at the Veterans Assistance Program at the Wisconsin Veterans home in Waupaca County; Judge Todd W. Bjerke, La Crosse; Chief Judge Benjamin D. Proctor, Eau Claire; Deputy Chief Judge James P. Daley, Rock County; Judge Elliott M. Levine, La Crosse; District Atty. Scott H. Southworth, Juneau County; and District Atty. John T. Chisholm, Milwaukee County.
More than 100 people at sites in Madison, Milwaukee and Tomah participated in a late June conference designed to help justice system partners develop plans for building specialty court programs for veterans.
Leave No One Behind: Veterans in the Criminal Justice Systembrought together judges, prosecutors, public defenders, treatment providers and county veterans services officers from across the state. Some jurisdictions are just beginning to explore the issues related to veterans in court; others are poised to launch specialty programs for veterans in the next six months.
"We are doing this, number one, because we owe it to the veterans," said Chief Judge Benjamin D. Proctor, Eau Claire County Circuit Court, "and number two, because this is a unique population that requires a different approach."Counties that may begin programs in 2009 or early 2010 include the Chippewa Valley (Chippewa, Dunn and Eau Claire counties), the Juneau County region, La Crosse County, Milwaukee County and Rock County.
Proctor and his colleague, Judge Lisa K. Stark, who also participated in the conference, have been leaders in the movement to develop specialty court programs. The Eau Claire judges now oversee programs for drug offenders, people with mental illness and single mothers.
"We know this can work because we have been successful with our other efforts," he said.
Judge James P. Daley, Rock County Circuit Court, also believes strongly in the need for specialty court programs for veterans – so strongly that he is leading the effort to open the first such program in Wisconsin. Daley has already organized a mentor-training program slated for late July, and he hopes to begin handling cases in August.
Also working to develop specialty court programs are judges, state public defenders and district attorneys in Juneau County (home to a large veteran population), La Crosse and Milwaukee.
Leave No One Behind: Veterans in the Criminal Justice System was sponsored by the Wisconsin Public Defender, Department of Corrections, Department of Justice, Veterans' Administration, Department of Veterans' Affairs, and the Wisconsin court system.
VA appoints justice outreach specialist
All Veterans Administration (VA) medical centers recently were authorized to add a new position, veteran justice outreach specialist (VJOS), to their staffs. The Milwaukee VA already has announced its appointee: Jacqueline D. Bethany, Ph.D. Bethany can be reached at (414) 384-2000 x41246.
BY Michael Zeigler
Monroe County Court Judge Patricia D. Marks can sometimes tell if criminal defendants appearing before her are military veterans.
"More often than not, they're the ones who pull themselves straight and answer 'yes ma'am' and 'no ma'am,'" she said.
Beginning today, some veterans who are accused of crimes will be able to use their military service to help them resolve the trouble they're in.
Marks, who already presides over Drug Treatment Court and Mental Health Court at the Hall of Justice, will take the bench this afternoon on the first day of the new Veterans Court, which is aimed at veterans who commit nonviolent crimes.
Modeled after a similar court in Buffalo, which began a year ago and was the first of its kind in the nation, Veterans Court will steer veterans to services designed just for them — from drug and alcohol treatment to housing assistance, employment services and therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder — while the criminal case against them is put on hold.
Veterans who successfully complete the programs they need can expect a break on the criminal charge, ranging from a dismissal to a reduced sentence, depending on the circumstances of the crime and their record.
Although the court has no age limit for veterans, it's getting under way in time to help younger veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Greg McClune, a clinical case worker at the Veterans Outreach Center of Rochester, which will provide services to the veterans and is the oldest community-based veterans outreach center in the nation.
"We have seen the age of the veterans we serve kind of drop," McClune said. "The youngest veteran we've had was 19, a combat veteran of Iraq."
The court is aimed at veterans who have committed such offenses as burglary, larceny, shoplifting, criminal mischief and possession of weapons or drugs. Its intent is to help veterans deal with underlying problems that led them to commit crimes, such as a drug addiction that compels them to steal, so they don't commit new crimes.
"We know that treatment helps reduce recidivism," Marks said.
"Veterans are a unique population," said Alisa Parmiter, manager of public relations and special events at the Veterans Outreach Center. "They don't commit these crimes just to commit them. The things they experienced while serving may have affected them to the extent that they turn to drugs and alcohol."
The court is being funded with a two-year, $263,939 grant from the federal Bureau of Justice Administration.
The court is patterned after two other local problem-solving courts — Drug Treatment Court, which began in 1995, and Mental Health Court, which was established in 2003.
The road to Veterans Court will begin after those who are arrested for nonviolent crimes are interviewed before their arraignment to determine if they're veterans. They'll be asked if they're interested in participating in the court.
If they agree and are accepted, the charges will be put on hold while they're enrolled in programs to address their needs. They'll report back to the court regularly. If they succeed in their programs, they'll be rewarded. If not, their prosecution resumes.
But getting veterans in some cases to acknowledge that they served has been a problem, Drug Treatment Court workers have found when they asked new clients whether they were veterans.
"One of the biggest problems in Drug Treatment Court was identifying who was a veteran," McClune said. "Often, in the initial intakes that the court would do, they would ask a client, 'Are you a veteran?' A significant number would answer 'no' because they weren't in combat or they didn't have an honorable discharge or they were in the reserves or the National Guard. Once we changed the question ... to 'Have you served in the military?' the numbers jumped."
Marks said she expects to begin with about 25 veterans who have already been screened. Eventually, the court could handle up to 150 veterans, she said.
McClune said he hopes to "find out that there's more than I can handle. My goal is to get all of them," he said. "I would much rather deal with a veteran in Veterans Court who got busted for possession of a controlled substance than to see him come back years later with a manslaughter charge. Hopefully, by getting to him early, we can prevent that."
Presiding judge served in Vietnam
EDWARDSVILLE - As a combat veteran of Vietnam and in the criminal courts, Madison County Circuit Judge Charles Romani Jr. has seen the connection between military service and the need for mental health and substance abuse services when the veterans return home.
Romani was a sergeant in the U.S. Army, serving near the Demilitarized Zone in South Vietnam.
Chief 3rd Circuit Judge Ann Callis recently appointed Romani as presiding judge over the new Madison County Veterans' Court.
"One of our fire bases was the farthest north of any post in South Vietnam. You could see the North Vietnamese flag from there," Romani said.
He said he served as a radio technician at several fire bases near the DMZ and saw teenagers, drafted into the Army, who had their first experiences with drugs and alcohol while serving in stressful combat situations.
As a judge, he has seen many veterans whose mental health and substance abuse problems contributed to their entanglements with the justice system. The drug or alcohol problems may be a result of the memories of their combat experiences, he said.
"Being a Vietnam veteran, I have always been concerned with the problems that veterans face when returning home," Romani said. "The court system needs to provide treatment for mental and/or substance abuse issues for those veterans who need it and are involved in the criminal justice system.
"The men and women who have served our country deserve an opportunity to get their lives in order," Romani said.
Callis said all the key officials of the new court are military veterans who have volunteered to head up various aspects of the court.
"Our court is unique in that it is staffed by veterans who served in virtually every branch of the United States Armed Forces - those who have served our country honorably and have a distinct understanding of veterans' issues," Callis said.
"Ours is the first in the state and, I believe, the third in the country," Callis said, noting that she learned of such programs at a judicial seminar.
She said participation in Veterans' Court will work similarly to Drug Court, in which people accused of crimes can enter the program voluntarily and receive treatment, instead of a possible criminal conviction.
"We are going to see if we can divert some of these people from the legal system," Romani said.
The probation officer spearheading the monitoring function of the court will be Brian Hodge, an active member of the U.S. Air Force Reserves, who serves as a flight commander at Scott Air Force Base. He is a veteran of Operation Desert Storm.
"I am confident than many of our struggling veterans would be well-served by a mentor from our community who may relate to what they are going through and can provide the support that only a fellow veteran or serviceman can offer," Hodge said.
Mental Health Probation Officer Dennis Baker, who served in the Army Medical Corps, also will participate. The prosecutor assigned to the court will be Michael Stewart, a former Marine Corps corporal. Tyler Bateman, the public defender, is a former Navy lieutenant.
Dr. Jeremy Jewell of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville will assist by attempting to bring in grant money and will provide a screening tool for probation.
Callis said the organization TASC, which provides evaluation and testing for the courts, will provide evaluations, free of charge, to the Veterans' Court.
"The court will only accept nonviolent offenders. It will require no additional funding and will be assisted by volunteer lawyers from the Madison County Bar Association," Callis said.
Special service for those who served : Albany city judges reaching out to local veterans groups with eye to forming court (01-10-2009)
By Carol DeMare
ALBANY — First came drug courts, followed by domestic violence courts, and now interest is mounting within the criminal justice system to do its part to help veterans who may find themselves standing before judges.
Many men and women returning from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan have difficulties adjusting to civilian life. Some have injuries. Others suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and may resort to drugs or alcohol to cope.
Courts, nationally and in the Capital Region, are paying attention to vets facing charges, just as drug addicts have avoided time behind bars through drug court programs and defendants in domestic violence cases have been given treatment and counseling, so judges want to help veterans, especially those whose cases involve nonviolent crimes.
In January 2008, Buffalo City Court Judge Robert T. Russell Jr. established what is believed to be the country's first Veterans Court. Now, two Albany City Court judges have sent a letter to local veterans' officials, noting their awareness of vets who "may have special needs due to service-related issues."
"In the past, we have attempted to address theses issues with your assistance so that qualified veterans could be diverted from the criminal justice system to the appropriate service provider," said the letter written by Judges William Carter and Thomas Keefe. "Based upon the early success of the Veterans' Court in Buffalo ... we think that this is an appropriate time to contact you and reaffirm our commitment to these men and women who have served in the armed forces."
The letter was sent to Joseph Pollicino, director of the Albany County Veterans Service Bureau, James McDonough, director of the state Division of Veterans Affairs, and Mary-Ellen Piché, director of the Stratton VA Administration Medical Center. They were asked for contact information for treatment providers.
"We requested updated information from the veterans organizations and let them know that we support them and our veterans," Carter said. "If it is determined that there is a need for a veterans court, we hope to be part of it."
The local court system has no plans at this time for such a dedicated court. But with hundreds of battle-weary vets returning home to the Capital Region, a day might come when such a court might join the other so-called problem-solving courts.
In those courts, defendants are screened and must qualify for programs offered by drug courts, mental health courts, domestic violence courts and veterans court. Before a veteran is afforded special treatment, it must be decided if a service-related issue caused the vet to commit the crime.
Pollicino, a Vietnam veteran, knows what war can do.
"Coming out of a situation from combat, or whatever, they do stuff because they can't cope with the stress they had in combat, and they come back home and they do things they shouldn't be doing because of that," he said.
Having judges pay attention to these issues provides an opportunity "to put a veteran in a better position rather than put him in a jail cell," Pollicino said. "It does help if you can nip it in the bud and give them treatment. The hardest part is convincing these veterans that they need treatment."
Vietnam veteran Terence Kindlon, an Albany criminal defense attorney, said his son, Lee Kindlon, works for veterans causes and would like to see a veterans court in Albany County. Lee Kindlon, a Marine Corps reserve captain and Iraq war veteran where he served in a JAG corps, works with his father.
Terence Kindlon, who has done a lot of PTSD-defense criminal work said, "In the post-Vietnam years, even though society was not very sympathetic and even though we didn't have special courts, many of the prosecutors and judges were World War II or Korean War vets and because of their experiences they understood the unique problems combat veterans faced and this, of course, made representing my young clients with PTSD a lot easier for me."
Today, however, prosecutors don't understand PTSD and most of the judges "have had no exposure to military life or to combat," all of which could be addressed "by having a special court with special rules and procedures for this unique group of veterans, young men and women, who've given so much, asked so little and suffered so deeply."
In describing the new veterans court, the Buffalo News wrote that the goal was "to intercept troubled veterans before they plunge further into an already overwhelmed criminal justice system, which lacks the resources to help them get their lives back on track."
Besides drug and alcohol treatment and mental health counseling, the Buffalo court finds lodging for homeless vets, helps the unemployed ones find job training and education at a community college and uses volunteer mentors to work with vets.
Rochester, after obtaining a federal grant, has set up a veterans court modeled after Buffalo's and will begin hearing cases this month.
Retired Albany County Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Wiest, another Vietnam veteran, said, "The big gorilla in this whole dynamics of veterans court is post-traumatic stress disorder. What exacerbates the situation is repeated tours in Iraq."
Often veterans are "documented with PTSD here and they medicate them and send them back," Wiest said. "I've read that some feel that the best treatment for PTSD is exposure to what caused it in the first place. This is crazy. Once these kids do get out, they can get in trouble."
Carol DeMare can be reached at 454-5431 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Mike Cronin
Allegheny County judges hope to set up the state's first court devoted to military veterans who get into trouble with the law.
Veterans court would provide options such as counseling and medical treatment -- instead of jail time -- for veterans who commit misdemeanors, said Common Pleas Judge Michael E. McCarthy, a county civil judge.
"This would help veterans who have suffered difficulties due to their military service," said McCarthy, 58, who served as a Navy Seabee during the Vietnam War. Those difficulties could include post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol and drug addiction, he said.
Such alternative courts are aimed at nonviolent offenders whose violations stem from mental illness, substance abuse, or in the case of veterans, PTSD. Instead of incarceration, they offer treatment programs to tackle the underlying causes of criminal behavior.
Allegheny County set up a mental health court in 2001 that places mentally ill people charged with nonviolent crimes with community social services.
The rate of repeat offenders goes down when people participate in alternative courts, said Amy Kroll, director of justice-related services in the county Department of Human Services.
"Alternative courts give individuals a way to recover their lives," Kroll said. "The answer is treatment, treatment and more treatment."
A 2007 RAND Corp. study of the county mental health court showed that only 14 percent of participants committed a crime after going through the program. The recidivism rate for the general population of inmates is 67 percent, the report said.
Alternative courts can save taxpayers money, too. A 2003 National Institute of Justice study that compared a drug court in Multnomah County, Ore., to criminal adjudication showed the drug-court model saved the public more than $2,300 per year for each participant.
The VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System could provide care, if necessary, and fellow veterans would serve as mentors to those appearing before the court, McCarthy said.
"That way, rather than just be adjudicated, we can try to address the problem," McCarthy said. "And veterans seem to respond to each other."
Some of the mentors will come from the Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania in the South Side.
"We're going to call on some of those we've assisted through the years to come back and help those that need their help right now," said Albert Mercer, the leadership program's executive director.
Officials in Erie County, N.Y., started what they believe to be the nation's first veterans court a year ago, said acting Erie County Judge Robert Russell. Others now exist in Anchorage, Alaska; Orange County, Calif.; and Tulsa, Okla.
"We took the approach that if we have a judicially oversighted treatment program, maybe we can change their behavior -- get them clean and sober and become productive members of society instead of a burden on society," Russell said.
It's too early for any data to exist on the effectiveness of veterans courts, Russell said.
Karen Blackburn, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's coordinator for problem-solving courts in Harrisburg, visited Russell's court in Buffalo with McCarthy. The Allegheny County program could serve as a statewide model, she said.
State Rep. Don Walko, D-North Side, said he requested a $25,000 state grant to fund a case manager for the veterans court "who will help them get into the right treatment programs."
The first step is to set up a task force and determine a method to identify defendants who are veterans, said Common Pleas Judge John A. Zottola, a criminal judge who presides over the county's mental health court. He said he hopes to have the program running by June.
By T.P. Hubert, Chair
The Veterans Incarcerated Committee has a lot on its plate. We are glad to report that incarcerated veteran issues are finally gaining national attention. As a new generation of veterans emerges, nearly three-fourths of a million are afflicted with PTSD or TBI or are suffering from paranoid veteran syndrome, also known as pissed-off veteran syndrome (PVS). This almost unfairly leads to encounters with the justice system. PVS is further exacerbated by alcohol and other drug abuse.
Vietnam veterans have 40 years of experience with the justice system. So we really should not be surprised by the attention on veterans and the criminal justice system. We are uniquely situated to provide insight on how not to do it. There are more than a half million Vietnam-era veterans who have been convicted of drug-related offenses along with those convicted of more serious offenses because of undiagnosed and untreated PTSD. Although it’s a little too late for us, we are encouraged by today’s emphasis on diversion and treatment instead of the conviction-and-incarceration approach we encountered.
VVA national staff received an invitation from the National Commission of Correctional Health Care to submit a presentation proposal for the Updates in Correctional Health Care conference to be held April 4-7 in Las Vegas. The NCCHC was seeking innovative prison mental health programs for presentations at its annual meeting and for publication in the Journal of Correctional Health Care.
One emerging issue in corrections is the plight of geriatric prisoners. Prisoners over 60 are now the fastest growing segment of the prison population, presenting unique issues for prison administrators. According to census figures, 62 percent of Vietnam veterans are now over the age of 60.
Chapter 719 at the Northern Nevada Corrections Center has a close relationship with a very successful, innovative prison geriatric program, True Grit, a structured-living program supervised by Mary Harrison, a prison psychologist. Mary, her husband, Will, and I will present “True Grit: a Humanistic Living Program for a Geriatric Population.”
VIC is excited about the introduction of HR 7149, which would provide grants to establish veterans’ treatment courts. HR 7149, also known as the Services, Education, and Rehabilitation for Veterans Act, or the SERV Act, will be administered by the Department of Justice through grants to public or private entities for the purpose of developing, implementing, or enhancing veterans’ treatment courts or expanding operational drug courts to serve veterans. Essentially, this House Bill has been modeled after the very successful Buffalo, N.Y., Veterans Court program.
Thanksgiving week brought even better news. Guy Gambill, of a Minneapolis sentencing coalition, sent me a copy of the progressive veteran sentencing legislation recently enacted there. The Minnesota Model should encourage other states to identify veterans and the unique issues they have as soon they encounter the police and prior to sentencing by the courts.
The Veterans Initiative Center and Research Institute is forming a national coalition to bring these justice-challenged veterans issues before Congress. The coalition plans include a “Day on the Hill” rally for families and friends of veterans incarcerated. The VIC will discuss how we can participate and support this coalition and be a voice for progressive and humanistic legislation for veterans.
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