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.