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."