Courts could help vets caught in criminal justice system

10/31/08 Seán Kinane
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Hundreds of thousands of combat-tested veterans are adjusting to civilian life after returning from fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and some of them commit crimes. A new court program is assisting veterans who have become entangled in the criminal justice system.

Judge Robert Russell is an Erie County judge in Buffalo, New York; he presides over the country’s first Veterans Treatment Court. Like the more common drug courts and mental health courts, Judge Russell’s veteran’s court uses social services such as counseling as alternatives to more punitive measures such as jail.

Russell was in Gulfport on Friday as a panelist for a program on returning veterans, war injuries and their impact on the criminal justice system. It was sponsored by The National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology and the Law at Stetson University College of Law at the Stetson University College of Law.

Rebecca Morgan is director of Stetson’s Center for Excellence in Elder Law and chair of the Elder Law program. Morgan said the purpose of Friday’s program was to deal with those stresses by addressing specific concerns of veterans.

“We’re going to look at some of the judicial responses to the ever-growing defendant population of veterans, [and] military resources which will help reserve and active duty personnel and dependents identify and respond to the stresses when they return to civilian life.”

Three of the panelists participated by video link from Menlo Park in northern California. One was Dr. Christopher Weaver of the Veterans Administration’s National Center for PTSD. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder are tied to an external stressor, Weaver said. Based on these symptoms, Weaver said, it makes sense that people affected by PTSD might get mixed up in the criminal justice system.

Stetson Law professor Mike Allen discussed a Washington Post study of the years 1999 to 2004 showing an alarming increase in the number of veterans with PTSD. Allen also cited two studies by the Rand Corp. and the Pentagon which found that 17 to 20 percent of returning vets displayed symptoms of PTSD or major depression. These mental health conditions often lead to substance abuse or to the criminal justice system. Between 200,000 and 300,000 veterans are homeless during the course of a year and 1.6 million veterans have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, Russell said.

Since he set up the country’s first veteran’s treatment court on Jan. 15, the “success has been tremendous,” Russell said.

Some veterans who have gone through the court have found employment, started college or reunited with their families, Russell said. His veteran’s treatment court looks similar to a typical courtroom, except it only contains veteran defendants and there are volunteer mentors, employees from veteran’s health care, and a U.S. Veteran Affairs representative.

Two bills in Congress could, if passed, provide federal grants to establish veteran's treatment courts.

Photo by Seán Kinane/WMNF

Stetson University College of Law

The National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology and the Law at Stetson University College of Law

Senate Bill 3379

House Bill 7149

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