Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Special Courts for Returning Vets? What Do We Owe Them?

by Diane Dimond

In America, everyone is supposed to be equal in the eyes of the law. But we’ve got a growing group, a particular class of defendants, entering American courtrooms who I believe need special consideration. They are soldiers returning from war.

Several studies conclude that between 30% to 40% of the approximately 1.6 million vets of Iraq and Afghanistan will "face serious mental-health injuries" like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and problems from traumatic brain injuries. Experts in the field report both those conditions are linked to anti-social and criminal behavior.

Now, to me those numbers–up to 40% of the troops afflicted–seem high. But if it’s even half that number, that’s too many brave souls returning home needing special help. So, what do we do with soldiers, who put their lives on hold to go to a foreign land to fight for our liberty, when they come home and get into trouble with the law?

To be clear, I’m not referring to the highly publicized cases where a returning soldier has committed murder. Those cases have caused many to think, Well, you train these young men to kill . . . they come home and kill.

But there is no research, let me repeat that, there is no research, to indicate vets commit violent crimes more often than civilians. In fact, if you extrapolate government statistics for murders committed by men ages 18 to 24, it’s the civilian who is more likely to kill someone, not the vet. I’m referring here to those anti-social, behavioral problems experts report that so many of our returning soldiers suffer from in silence. Problems with substance abuse, paranoia, flashbacks, and bursts of unexplained temper, problems so debilitating the vet takes out their frustrations on loved ones or commits suicide.

Judge Robert Russell in Buffalo, New York (below right) noticed the trend last year. Disturbed after seeing some 300 vets come through his court, he started what’s believed to be the nation’s very first “Veteran’s Court” for those having problems re-adjusting to civilian life. The charges against these defendants range from public drunkenness and assault, driving while intoxicated, drug-related offenses, disturbing the peace, theft, domestic violence, and other emotion-driven violations.

The goal of this specialized court is to intercept troubled veterans before they spiral down and get lost in our already overwhelmed criminal justice system.

The soft-spoken Judge Russell figured everyone would benefit if the vets could answer for their crimes in a special place that offered treatment not just punishment and a courtroom staff that included veteran advocates and assigned mentors. No veteran who appears can fall back on the self pitying thought that, "No one here knows what I’ve been through," because everyone in the room completely understands. Judge Russell is firm, however, demanding atonement and adherence to a one- to two-year individualized treatment plan. He meets regularly with each veteran face-to-face to follow the progress. Failures get the original sentence for their crime.

“Many of our vets have a warrior mentality,” Judge Russell explained in a radio interview. “Some perceive that treatment may be for the weak and we’re working to change that paradigm.” Judge Russell instills the idea that “the real courage and strength comes from the warrior who asks for help.” He’s encouraged by the progress he’s seen.

Criminal justice professionals all across America realize when the soldiers start streaming home they will also have to grapple with the problem of their re-adjustment to society. So, Judge Russell’s special Veteran’s Court idea has been studied nationwide and has now either been adopted in or is being considered by several other states including Alaska, Pennsylvania, California, and Arizona.

One supporter is retired Air Force Colonel and Attorney Billy Little, who told the Arizona Republic, "One of the things that [has] offended me is seeing a veteran who is self-medicating with alcohol or marijuana or meth and going to court and standing side by side with some gangbanger or lifetime criminal and being treated the same as them."

I can’t think of a bigger travesty. To answer the soldier’s service with a jail sentence for behavior that might very well stem from their service makes a mockery of their bravery. To toss the offending veteran in prison alongside the truly hardened criminal is akin to society saying they aren’t worth the trouble.

We already have about 2,000 Special Treatment Courts in America to help those struggling with addiction. There are another 200 Mental Health Courts and both have been successful in strategic support and treatment for Americans in need. Don’t our returning soldiers deserve a special place too?

It really all comes down to this: By the very virtue of these veterans sacrifice for our freedom does the country owe them something extra upon their return? Of course we do.


Cheryl said...

Amen to that. There really is no way for sure to tell if these vets would have commited these crimes whether they served in the war or not. In fact I imagine a handful of them will use PTSD as an excuse even if they are not suffering from it.

I for one am willing to give all of them the benefit of the doubt though. After all they are/were subjected to things we can only imagine.

My son is a Marine and a damn good kid.....always has been. He has never been deployed but he has told me some crazy stories about some of the guys he meets who have come back from deployments. These are young men - some who joined straight out of high school - and they will NEVER be the same people they once were.

It would be great if every state had a "Veterns Court."

Sibby said...

A second "Amen" to this overdue and much needed service for our veterans.

Leah said...

I am in agreement as well. I find it appalling that there are homeless and hurting veterans in our country after all they have sacraficed for us.

Anonymous said...

If only we had shown this kind of understanding to previous generations of warriors. This might have made a difference between a lifetime of trouble and problems or a chance to live a normal life. I am all for this.

The very nature of beig a solider makes asking for help -- especially mental -- hard to do.

Cheryl said...,0,3394300.story

Cheryl said...

Not sure if you can cut n paste that link but its an article printed in my local paper about a soldier (MP) who recently returned from Iraq and may have committed suicide.

Breaks my heart.

Soobs said...

God Bless that judge! We owe it to our returning veterans to at least TRY and make a difference.

ignatius said...

Our military are habilitated and thus are perfect excellent candidates for rehabilitation. Unlike the lifestyle criminals we keep arresting and re-arresting.