Legal News
Special Veterans' Court Focuses on MH Recovery
Psychiatric News
Volume 43 Number 18 page 16-29

Judge Robert Russell, J.D., grew discouraged seeing military veterans who were accused of crimes return repeatedly to his mental health and drug treatment courtrooms in Buffalo, N.Y.

Sometimes, though, he'd watch as Jack O'Connor, his project director and a Vietnam War veteran, approached a vet in the courtroom.

"I saw them connect better," recalled Russell in an interview." The defendants came back to court with a renewed spirit, a more erect posture, and a can-do attitude. I said there's something to this."

About 300 defendants who are veterans flow through the city and county courts in Buffalo every year. Most have mental health or substance abuse problems, and many could be deterred from future criminal activity with some structured intervention by the court system, said O'Connor, in an interview.

Russell has some experience in diversionary programs. He has presided over the city's drug-treatment court since 1995 and began a one-day-a-week mental health treatment court in 2001. Russell and O'Connor began a series of meetings with veterans groups, police, local officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and others to discuss the possibility of creating a veterans-only court. They expanded the meetings, inviting comment from mental health care providers.

O'Connor is not only an infantry veteran, but also previously managed the county's Medicaid program. He runs Russell's drug and mental health programs and sits on the advisory board for veterans health care in western New York state.

All involved sought to create a setting in which veterans who appeared as defendants in court would come to see treatment as a sign of strength rather than weakness, said Russell.

"The court provides a needed opportunity, especially where substance abuse or mental illness is involved, for an early intervention that will make it more likely that the veterans will turn their lives around and become productive citizens," said Thomas Berger, Ph.D., chair of the national PTSD/Substance Abuse Committee of the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA).

There were two key elements to the Buffalo plan.

First, O'Connor asked the VA medical center in Batavia, N.Y., for a representative who would sit in the courtroom every Tuesday when the veterans' court convened. The VA employee brought a secure department laptop computer that permitted instant access to the VA's records for any veteran. O'Connor cut through the red tape by getting approval from a deputy secretary of the department, who had been promoted only recently from the Batavia facility.

Now the VA employee can see whether the vet is registered with the VA and, if not, enroll him or her. Once the vet commits to a treatment program, Russell can learn during a court session if the defendant has kept VA appointments and is making progress.

The second crucial element is the presence of other veterans in the courtroom, said Russell. They serve as informal advisors to the vets while they are in court. Mentors do not take the place of case managers but do keep a running log of their contacts with defendants so a colleague can pick up whenever the defendant returns to court.

"We are so fortunate to have 22 active volunteer mentors," said Russell. "Four or five are present at each court date and are available to speak with defendants one on one. They may help with nonlegal issues like VA paperwork or benefits or they may just help the defendant with their uneasiness about starting treatment. The men and women mentors have all served in conflicts from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan and can understand the feelings and emotions of those who have also served there."

"This is more than a judge who understands the value of early intervention," said Berger. "It works because of the heavy involvement of deeply committed local veterans."

Not every veteran accused of a crime is eligible for the veterans court, Russell pointed out.

"We accept people charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies," he said. "We exclude sex crimes and most weapons charges."

Some veterans come to his court before a verdict, and others have been convicted and are referred prior to sentencing. In either case, compliance with a treatment program is the condition for staying out of jail.

"We expect the veterans to work with a provider on a treatment plan, attend all treatment and counseling sessions, stay on any prescribed medications, remain sober and off drugs, faithfully attend all court appearances, and commit themselves to a law-abiding life—meaning not get rearrested," said Russell.

Through the court, veterans have access to VA services, medical care, psychosocial services, housing assistance, job training, day care for children, family counseling, and help with transportation. An "Education to Recovery" program at a local community college can help them get a high-school equivalency diploma, job-skills certification, or even an associate's degree.

The defendants stay in the program for at least a year and can be discharged once their health care provider states that they are well enough to continue without the court's supervision.

"It's not easy for them," said O'Connor. "These are complex cases, many with drug or alcohol or mental health elements. They know that if they relapse, the one-year clock resets back to zero."

Russell has an intimate knowledge of the criminal-justice system. He worked as a defense attorney and as a prosecutor for the city and state before becoming a judge 17 years ago. In his years on the bench, he saw many of the same defendants returning to court again and again. He hoped the diversion process set up for drug addicts, mentally ill persons, and now veterans might break that cycle.

Forty-six veterans have entered the program since it began in January, so it is still too soon to know what outcomes it will produce in the long run. About half the veterans in the program served during the Vietnam War era.

"These are not guys who were screwed up their whole lives," said O'Connor. "They had no serious criminal history for 40 years while they were working."

But the combination of life changes induced by retirement and graphic reports on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has pushed some over the edge, he said. The current military generation faces its own problems, too, after two or three tours of combat duty.

"There are 500 or 600 arrests when the 10th Mountain Division [based at nearby Fort Drum, N.Y.] comes home," said O'Connor. There is no benefit to putting them all in jail, he said.

For a long time, no one even asked defendants in court whether they were veterans, but O'Connor has worked with Buffalo police to record that information at the time of arrest, if only for data purposes. Having that information routinely can help police and court officials direct arrestees to the vets court, if appropriate.

Similar programs might be adapted for local use elsewhere in the United States, if the Buffalo experiment proves useful. Berger and VVA have participated in recent discussions with the judicial, legal, social-service, and consumer communities to create a model for such programs.

Minnesota and California have recently passed legislation requiring that sentencing of persons convicted of crimes must take mental illness linked to military service into consideration when sentencing. ▪

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