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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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In a downtown building that looks like a bunker, Judge Robert Russell Jr. ascends to the bench of his courtroom with a greeting that more closely resembles an Army cadence than a call to order.

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"Good afternoon!" Judge Russell says to those assembled before his bench.

"Good afternoon, Judge!" they yell back in robust unison.

Even on a typical day, this is not a typical courtroom. The Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court is the first of its kind in the nation – a court of law only for US military veterans who have run afoul of the law, and only for those willing to exchange jail time for a year of counseling, treatment, and tough love.

But this day is not about stern words and legal sentences. It begins with a graduation ceremony for those who have made it through. One receives a "challenge coin," to mark a job well done, and all receive a reminder "to be mindful of the people, places, and things that put us at risk."

Then Russell comes down off the bench to give them a hug.

"I'm going to stay straight," one graduate says. "No more drinking, no more gambling."

This Veterans Day, the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court's program is being held up as a model. Of the 90 vets who have graduated, none has been rearrested, and the idea spawned in the municipal courts here is spreading. Built in the image of local drug courts or family courts, some 100 military veterans courts have been established in city courts nationwide, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. And the VA expects that number to double in the next year alone.

The need is clear. Across America, 1 in 10 criminals is a US military veteran, according to US Department of Justice statistics. Russell and others believe that these rates are closely tied to the experience of going to war.

A 2008 RAND Corp. study found that one-fifth of all US military service members who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan report grappling with post-traumatic stress or major depression. Yet half of these former troops say they have never sought treatment, either for fear that it will harm their careers, or because they have trouble navigating the military medical bureaucracy.

Veterans courts and their emphasis on rehabilitation are designed to help fill that gap.

The goal is to "really project the VA's treatment capacity into the criminal justice system," says Sean Clark, the VA's national coordinator for Veterans Justice Outreach, which means "trying to catch veterans as early as possible in their 'justice careers,' if you will."

In Buffalo, one criminal in particular, brought into court on a drug offense, stuck in Russell's mind.

"When I asked him where he lived, he said, 'Well, Judge, I'm homeless.' That blew me away. How can a guy who served in Iraq come home and say, 'I'm homeless'? It was just uncon­scion­able to me."

Preventing homelessness is a primary aim, since adult male veterans who have been incarcerated are far more likely to be homeless, the VA's Mr. Clark says.

Though supported by the VA, veterans courts tend to be driven by individual judges and service members who see a need within their communities. In Buffalo, the vast majority of vets who walk through Russell's doors come on drug- and alcohol-related offenses.

"I started seeing vets from the most recent conflict – young people, 23 or 24," Russell says, recalling the events that led him to create his veterans court in January 2008. "They looked good physically – sharp, brush cut – but they were being arrested for different things."

And not all veteran offenders are cut out for veterans courts. By electing to go through the program, vets are agreeing to a rigorous 12-month program that includes intensive counseling, mentoring from fellow vets, frequent random drug tests, and job training.

Some drop out and opt for the "regular" court, in which they face jail time but none of the commitments of the rehabilitation program. Indeed, the 90 graduates of the Buffalo program represent only one-third of the 285 vets who have come before the court.

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