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Saturday, January 12, 2008

1st US 'Veterans Court' Comes to Order

A welcome counter to today's NYT report from The Buffalo News:

A small army of veterans advocates is putting the finishing touches on what is believed to be the country’s first Veterans Court, where military veterans having problems adjusting to civilian life will get special attention.

The goal is 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.

“Rather than be reactionary, we thought if we could be proactive, we could design a system that would better serve our community, the veterans and their families,” said Buffalo City Court Judge Robert T. Russell Jr., who will preside over Veterans Court when it starts Tuesday.

In educational interest, article(s) quoted from extensively.


In some ways, this court is similar to the Drug Court and Mental Health Court that Russell already supervises, offering defendants a chance to wipe the slate clean and avoid time behind bars so long as mandated treatment programs are followed.

The Veterans Court, operating in Buffalo City Court, will be open to all Erie County veterans who commit nonviolent offenses, even if the crimes occur outside city limits. That’s because judges in other jurisdictions have the option of referring veterans to this special court.

And there’s no question of the need. A recent study determined more than 300 area veterans, many of them who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, entered the criminal justice system in 2007.

The move to create the new court for veterans was praised by West Huddleston, president of the National Association of Drug Courts in Alexandria, Va.

“It’s certainly the first designated veterans court in the United States, and it is a step in the right direction for veterans with post-traumatic stress, emotional and mental health issues,” Huddleston said, adding that the local judicial system is recognizing that these individuals, who sometimes turn to drugs and alcohol, require “help not punishment.”

Court officials here said that historically the criminal justice system has not done well with returning war veterans.

“Vietnam vets did not have this kind of service. The system was ill-prepared, and we’re hoping to learn from our mistakes,” said Henry G. Pirowski, a former Marine, social worker and project director for City Court.

Working with Pirowski on establishing the court, which will be in session every Tuesday, are Jack O’Connor and David Mann, co-founders of the Western New York Veterans Project. Veterans need the special judicial attention, said Mann, who also works as a Buffalo police lieutenant.

“Nationally, we’re seeing an increase of domestic violence, child abuse and neglect among veterans. We also know that there are higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse, which sometimes leads to arrests,” Mann said.

In this mix of behavior, Pirowski said, are war-related psychological wounds.

“There’s a lot of self-medication with drugs and alcohol, and when you throw in post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries, it’s a formula for failure and unacceptable behavior,” he said. Compounding the problem, Pirowski said, is that the veterans who need the help the most are the least likely to find it on their own.

“They have a warrior mentality. Treatment is for the weak, and so they don’t seek it,” he said.

But part of the message in Veterans Court is that there is no shame in accepting help. And the help will be comprehensive, going beyond drug and alcohol treatment and counseling from mental health experts:

• Homeless veterans will be placed in lodging.

• Unemployed veterans will receive job training and education at Erie Community College.

• Volunteer mentors will be assigned to work with the offending veterans.

“What we hear a lot in court is that ‘no one understands me,’ ‘they don’t know how I feel,’ and ‘I no longer fit in,’” Pirowski said. That won’t be the case in Veterans Court.

“We have close to 20 veterans who are volunteering as mentors to help them readjust to civilian life,” Russell said. “It’s amazing to see how one veteran talking to another veteran can help in encouraging treatment.”

The judge witnessed this first hand through a pilot program of Veterans Court over the last year, in which more than 160 veterans, many from Iraq and Afghanistan, were assisted. ... [T]hose who embrace the second chance offered by Veterans Court, the prospects of staying out of trouble with the law are better than those of the typical criminal.

“The overall national average for recidivism is 60 to 80 percent. With vets we’ve worked with informally over the last three years, the rate has been 4 percent,” Pirowski said. And there’s another big plus.

Dr. Terri Julian, manager of the VA’s post-traumatic stress residential program in Batavia, says this type of early intervention will save lives that might otherwise be destroyed.

“If we can introduce opportunities for a healthier alternative, like treatment to deal with emotional problems and alcohol problems, then we are doing the veteran a service and society as well,” Julian said. There’s no disagreement on that point.

Pirowski says that while the criminal justice system lacks the resources to treat veterans, it will make a difference with the Veterans Court. “In the old days it was search and destroy,” said Pirowski, referring to his military service and that of other vets. “Now it’s identify and help.”

I absolutely love this type of proactive community involvement.

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