Criminal Justice

Special Courts to Help Veterans Are a Growing Trend Nationwide

On the eve of Veterans Day, newspapers around the country are reporting on new courts being established to help those who served their country cope with special problems members of the U.S. military may suffer when they return home.

“Serving in combat situations for a lengthy period of time, there is a lot of stress,” Presiding Judge Charles Romani of Madison County, Ill., Circuit Court, himself a veteran of the Vietnam War, tells St. Louis Today. “You see a lot of things, you may do some things, that eventually get to you, bother you. And you can’t on your own shake those feelings.”

In 2009, when Madison County’s Veterans Treatment Court was established, it was the third in the country, the article says. The first, in Buffalo, N.Y., inspired others including this one. (National Public Radio and USA Today published articles in 2008 describing the Buffalo court.)

Geared toward those who aren’t hard-core violent offenders, the courts help veterans develop appropriate treatment plans to help resolve issues in their daily lives, thus avoiding or eliminating jail time.

“They are actually being asked to do a whole lot more than a drug court is asking,” says Brad Lavite, another Vietnam War veteran who oversees the Madison County program. “We’re asking them to not only get treatment, we’re saying we’re going to put a complete plan together. If you’re homeless, we’re going to get you off the streets; if you’re unemployed, we’re going to get you in the jobs program.”

An article in the Atlantic about a veterans court in Dallas notes that it can be helpful for struggling vets to get support from other former members of the military who are either facing charges, too, or have already gotten their lives together.

And an ABA Journal magazine article this month details how that can work.

Associate Judge Robert Russell of Buffalo City Court was working in drug and mental health treatment courts he had set up years earlier when he noticed, first, that more veterans were showing up as defendants there and, second, that they responded positively to fellow vets who worked for the court, former soldier Jack O’Connor and former Marine Hank Pirowski.

“It was, wait a minute, there’s something to this … how a veteran responds to another veteran,” Russell recounted.

Other such programs have since sprouted up, generally focusing on nonviolent offenders, although some do include those charged with felonies or offenders convicted of felonies who have been released on probation or parole.

“Many [criminal-law] courts are saying ‘Wait a second. These offenders have no criminal history, their family says they didn’t have any problems before going to war—we need to give them a second chance,’ ” Brian Clubb tells the Atlantic. He oversees the veterans-treatment-court project at the National Association of Drug Court Professionals in Alexandria, Va.

Among the states that now have special courts for veterans either up and running or soon to be launched are California, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Missouri, Texas and Washington state.

The U.S. Department of Justice today announced in a press release that it is providing more than $1 million in grants to help support such courts in California; Hennepin County, Minn.; Yellowstone County, Mont.; and Spokane County, Wash.

Additional coverage:

Los Angeles Times (2009): “These courts give wayward veterans a chance”

Slate (2010): “Specialized courts for war veterans work wonders. But why stop at veterans?”

KPCC (California): “Orange County court gives combat veterans a second chance”

Chicago Tribune (Illinois): “Cook County Veterans Court offers helping hand”

Associated Press (Michigan): “Macomb County launching veterans court in 2012”

Daily American Republic (Missouri): “Special court program helps area veterans in legal trouble”

WCBS (New York): “Nassau County Opens New Court For Veterans”

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