Veterans Day: When vets run afoul of the law, these courts care
Modeled after local drug or family courts, veterans courts are springing up, stressing rehabilitation and mentoring over jail time. Is it special treatment, or deserved consideration?
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Russell's hope in starting the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court was to tap into the culture of the US military in an effort to help turn around the lives of those who came into his courtroom.Skip to next paragraph
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"Is there something we can do to take advantage of the military culture?" he wondered. "To capture that experience of discipline, integrity, pride – that team relationship?"
The veterans courts are an effort to create a structure for participants. But the court is no boot camp.
The key is to find mentors "who are sensitive enough not just to get in people's faces," he says. "Someone who's going to have a degree of empathy as a coach, as a motivator. It's not their role to be a disciplinarian. The court, if necessary, will do that."
The Buffalo court program has had to let mentors go in the past for being too overbearing: "I remember, one said: 'Forget the VA – you need to get yourself together and be a man,' " O'Connor says. "What ... kind of a statement is that?"
In other cases, O'Connor says he lost mentors when he asked them to do too much. "I remember we had one guy spend the entire day at the VA, helping to get [other people's] benefits ironed out. You know what happened? He quit."
The Buffalo mentor program, with 40 members, raises its own funds separately from the court system. The money buys challenge coins issued at graduation, gas money, and bus passes for participants to get to their court appearances.
The results, the mentors say, speak for themselves: No graduate has been rearrested, O'Connor notes.
"There is disbelief that the program is this good," he says.
Yet O'Connor and others acknowledge a wider criticism: Why do veterans deserve such special treatment?
In the beginning, "some people didn't like the idea of the vets courts," he says. "They thought we were doing way too much for vets – the word 'boutique' was thrown around a lot."
The rapid proliferation of veterans courts raises some legal questions as well, says Michael McDaniel, a retired lieutenant general in the Michigan National Guard and associate professor at Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Ann Arbor, Mich.
"There are a couple of really interesting issues from a public policy standpoint," Mr. McDaniel says. "When you get the judicial branch involved, it says, 'Equal protection under the law.' " This means, he says, that there have to be "some limits on veterans' treatment courts."
Should, for example, veterans treatment courts be limited only to service members who have committed misdemeanors, or should the courts be available to admitted felons as well?
Deciding who qualifies
And if there is some assumption that combat stress arising out of the wounds of war is the reason former troops are committing crimes, then should courts be available only to those who served in combat?
On this point, courts across the country differ. In Michigan, veterans courts are open only to those who have served on active duty.
But Russell and the mentors of the Buffalo court feel differently. "Combat or no combat doesn't affect us if you've signed that line that says, 'Here's a blank check to Uncle Sam payable up to and including your life,' " says Frank Grillo, an Iraq war vet and court mentor who served three combat tours in Iraq "in the worst possible areas."
"What if you're support to combat? What if you're the person who's caretaker to bodies when they come home? What if I'm in a training exercise before I'm deployed and get injured?" says Russell. "When you start splitting hairs, then do you start investigating and analyzing: Where were you? Were you close to the front? What we do know is that they signed an oath to defend their country."
And that, says O'Connor, "is the vets' mentality," both in the Buffalo court and in the rapidly growing numbers of veterans courts throughout the country: a combination of "leave no soldier behind," he says, and "There but for the grace of God go I."
IN PICTURES: Places of honor: war memorials of Washington, D.C.