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.