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?

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Judge Robert Russell Jr. (r.) congratulates veteran Richard Wilkiewicz, who successfully completed his program at the Buffalo (N.Y.) Veterans Treatment Court.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Mike Morris, Judge Russell’s mental-health coordinator, appeared with a defendant at the Buffalo (N.Y.) Veterans Treatment Court late last month.

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.

"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.

But for a former service member trying to rebuild his life, the veterans courts offer multiple benefits. When vets walk into the courtroom, they have immediate computer access to local VA officials, who can refer them to services such as counseling, benefits, or job training.

"Many of the vets have claims that have been pending for years," says Jack O'Connor, the mentor coordinator for the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court. "The vet's getting more done in his first day with the judge than he's gotten done with the VA in his whole life."

Moreover, they are watched over by the court's volunteer mentors, who are vets themselves, and will often go to great lengths to help their charges. They drive them to counseling appointments hours away, and help them line up interviews and find housing, for example.

"When we go to serve our country, sometimes we don't realize that the sacrifice continues when we come home," says Philip Ippolito, a military veteran and team leader for the court's mentors, choking back tears at the graduation ceremony. "And because of that sacrifice, we struggle."

Are the courts just for criminals?

When word of these services got out, however, it did not sit well with some vets, who asked whether they would have to commit a crime to have access to care that they had been seeking through the VA and the Pentagon's bureaucratic channels, sometimes for years.

One afternoon, a veteran came into the court yelling. He wanted to know why those who were arrested got immediate services, but he, as a law-abiding citizen, had seen his claim languish with the VA for years.

His aggressive loudness led him to be "immediately taken to the ground," says Mr. O'Connor. "But we all heard what he said."

In response, the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court established what it calls its "line to the left." Anyone who wants help from a mentor of the court can come before the court and meet with them to get advice and help on their claim.

The mentors' dedication comes from a deep sympathy. They know what veterans in the program are going through, they say, because they have often struggled mightily themselves.

Mentors' dedication: They've been there

Trueman Muhrer was an Army private first class when he deployed to Iraq as part of the invasion.

On security for an explosive ordnance disposal unit, Mr. Muhrer was in the gun turret of his Humvee when it was hit by a roadside bomb. He spent four months in the hospital. His buddy, the assistant gunner in the passenger seat, was killed.

During his time in recovery, Muhrer saw "a lot of veterans going through struggles, just dealing with the system. There are a lot of places where people need an advocate."

People like Justin Smith, who was deployed to Iraq as a private first class at the height of the war as a gunner on Route Irish, widely known at the time as the most dangerous road in the world.

"We did patrols almost every day," Mr. Smith recalls.

After he returned from war, Smith felt angry and lost. "I knew I had a problem – my temper. I never really sleep," he says.

Then he found himself homeless. "Luckily, it was summertime. It was warm outside, so I could wander."

Then, in July 2011, Smith got into a high-speed chase with police. He could have been charged with a felony, but instead was referred to veterans court. "That basically kind of saved me," he says. "It was a relief – I was thinking I was going to be in jail for quite some time."

Mentors helped Smith apply for VA disabilities. "I didn't even know I was supposed to be receiving benefits for post-traumatic stress," he says.

Now he has a home, cares for his two young sons, and gets anger-management counseling. "I can buy a house – I can do almost anything I want."

The court and the camaraderie it provides create "a pretty welcoming environment," he adds, explaining that his mentor "told me about his symptoms, the stuff he dealt with – we went through the same stuff."

That said, he adds, "I always kind of feel alone anyways."

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.

"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."

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