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Special Courts for Veterans Charged With Crimes

Last week, we celebrated Veterans Day in honor of those who have served our country. Yet, veterans returning from war can have difficulty adjusting to life back home. In our present wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we have nearly 1.6 million veterans. It is estimated that nearly 20 percent of returning veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD).

Ronald D. Castille, a former Marine Lieutenant who lost his leg serving in Vietnam, now serves as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Last week, he wrote an excellent op-ed piece in the New York Times on Veterans Treatment Courts.

Three years ago, Robert T. Russell Jr., a judge in Buffalo, New York noticed a disturbing trend in his courtroom. A growing number of the defendants charged were young veterans who recently returned from active duty. Many times, these young veterans had serious drug, alcohol, or mental health problems.

Many returning veterans dealing with PSTD were attempting to cope by using drugs and alcohol. As a result, they were often running afoul of the law as a result of coping with their past experiences more so than any intent to commit crimes. Judge Russell's "veterans court" program was designed to give veterans a path to recovery without forcing them into the penal system.

In a veterans court system, veterans charged with nonviolent crimes and suffering from mental problems or dependency on drugs or alcohol are placed into the separate veterans court system. After an initial screening, they would be offered a treatment program instead of standing trial. The court then monitors the veteran's progress and compliance with the treatment program.

The results have been outstanding in Judge Russell's program. About 90 percent of participants complete the program, and repeat offenses are unheard of. Judge Russell's program is being copied by courts across the country, including some courts in Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, the state is collaborating with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and has established a task force of VA and criminal justice system leaders to work together to best treat troubled veterans.

These veterans courts will be a great step forward in treating veterans who struggle to deal with their wartime experiences. It is great to see the criminal justice system recognizing that many people charged with alcohol, drug and other non-violent crimes committed their crimes because they are trying to cope with mental illness or chemical dependency. The emphasis in these programs is on the offender rather than the offense and helping the offender adjust to a life free from the shackles of mental illness and dependency on chemical substances.

Source: New York Times: A Special Court for Veterans; Ronald D. Castille, 11/10/2010

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