In 1986, one in every five inmates in state prison was a former member of the military.
Today, many post-9/11 veterans are still running into trouble with the law. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects at least 167,500 veterans (that’s just the number diagnosed by VA doctors) who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan — and it could afflict as many as 620,000. The disorder has given soldiers their toughest mission yet: successfully reintegrating into civilian life. The nightmares and flashbacks, anxiety, hyper-vigilance and other unresolved mental health issues caused by PTSD often translate into drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness, domestic violence and lawbreaking.
In a society that’s appears increasingly disconnected from the experience of war, there’s one civic institution that’s taking strides to accommodate veterans’ unique situation. Courtrooms across the country are now adopting veterans treatment courts — at least 180 established locations and many more are in development, according to the nonprofit Justice for Vets. It’s a model that tailors the criminal justice system’s response to the circumstances: Similar to drug and mental health treatment courts, judges are less inclined to mete out punishment to troubled vets, connecting them with help, particularly from the VA and local military members. If a former warrior successfully completes the program (which can include counseling, substance abuse treatment and job training), all the charges against him are dropped; if he fails to finish, the original jail sentence goes into effect.
“Many veterans will say, ‘I’m okay, I don’t need any help,’ but sometimes it takes another veteran to say, ‘You know, things are starting to spiral out of control,’” says Judge Robert Russell, who convened the first court in Buffalo in early 2008. “It could be traumatic brain injury. It could be PTSD. It could be any number of things that are left untreated. They’re not only debilitating, they’re what’s placing the person in the criminal court system and will continue to keep them in the criminal justice system.”
Russell says the “impetus of the court” began with a single case that came before him in 2006. A former Vietnam vet who’d appeared in his drug treatment court didn’t seem to be responding to the program. Group sessions didn’t work; neither did one-on-ones. “He wasn’t really engaged,” Russell recalls. “When he appeared in court, his posture was slumped. When I asked him what was going on with counseling, I didn’t get much of a response, just sort of like, ‘Huh?’” Russell pointed to two men in the room — Hank Pirowski, a former Marine, and Jack O’Connor, an Army vet — and asked them to talk to the downcast man out in the hallway.
Twenty minutes later, the three reentered. The defendant strutted to the front of the room and stretched to his full height, a tall 6’4”. He stood with his legs slightly apart and held his hands clasped behind his back — a military posture known as “parade rest.”
“He looked directly at me and said, ‘Judge, I’m going to try harder,’” Russell says. Afterwards, Russell met with Pirowski and O’Connor to find out what they said to the guy and how they got a response from him.
The two veterans had discussed their service, and after they’d established a common background, they told the man they cared about him and explained how important counseling would be for him to move forward. As simple as it sounds, the man needed to hear it from someone who’d struggled like he had, someone who could reassure him a future existed.
From that day forward, the trio collaborated on setting up a treatment court for veterans. Their goal? To “afford the best opportunities for the men and women who have served,” Russell says, setting aside one day each week to dedicate entirely to members of the military. The time was used to assemble a team of outside services, so referrals could begin immediately. If a vet hadn’t signed up for VA care, for example, a health official could immediately engage him that day, scheduling appointments and enrolling him for benefits right there in court.
An essential aspect of the treatment court is the volunteer veteran mentors, who function as a coach, sponsor and supporter, providing help with bus passes, rent, furniture or just talking through any crisis. “If they need something, Marines talk to Marines more than they do their own lawyer,” O’Connor says. Many are Vietnam vets who want soldiers just returning home from the Middle East to receive a different welcome than they did. “We never tell anyone about stuff we dealt with because no one liked us. People really hated our guts. Now a lot of Vietnam vets are in positions of authority. They’re in their 60s, they’re on boards of corporations, they own their own companies,” O’Connor adds.
As so many restorative justice programs have shown, rehabilitation like veteran courts reduces crime over the long haul by addressing the problems that initially led to criminal behavior. As O’Connor, who now coordinates the volunteer mentors, says, “You treat the illness, you stop the addiction.”
There’s stories like Gary Pettengill, a 23-year-old Buffalo resident arrested in a drug sweep. In 2006, while serving in the Army in Iraq, he injured his back and was forced to take a medical discharge. Nights were intolerable, alternating between sleepless pain and nightmares, so Pettengill began smoking marijuana to cope. Unemployed (in part because of his injury), he began selling weed to make ends meet and was eventually diagnosed with PTSD. Pettengill never did any jail time, and he credits the program with saving him from suicide, an option that had once looked inevitable.
Pettengill’s just one of the program’s 150 graduates in Buffalo. Another is the man whose appearance before Russell sparked the court’s conception. The man’s case manager at the local VA hospital said he had never seen the man smile before, but after the court was established, he became one of the cheeriest men at the facility.
O’Connor gives each of these men a special coin at graduation. It harkens back to “challenge coins,” small medallions that are unique to each unit of the military, only these have the scales of justice on one side and the phrase “Leave no veteran behind” on the other. He tells the grads to carry it with them, so if they ever run into trouble, they’ll remember how far they’ve come.
Data coming in from across the country backs up these stories. A three-year pilot in San Diego (home to multiple Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard facilities) found that recidivism dropped for those in the program, most of whom had been booked on DUIs or domestic violence charges. Of the 74 enrolled, only three reoffended — a rate of 4.1 percent, far below the 65 percent figure for state prisons. Even better, among the 27 who graduated the program, not a single person committed another crime. The county estimated the program’s savings at $3.985 million in jail and treatment costs.
“Once you’re seen the success rate, you can’t hide it,” O’Connor says. “Something’s working, and it’s working all over the country.”
That’s not to say there’s not criticisms of the concept. Although most are quick to thank veterans for their service, some wonder if the military is receiving special treatment that should be more widely available. After all, why do former service members receive a get-out-of-jail-free card while others are locked up? Russell says this is partly a matter of logistics. Veterans need specialized care, so scheduling their cases on the same day creates an easy one-stop shop for both client and service provider. The alternative sentencing is not a free pass, either. Former soldiers are expected to make regular court appearances and are subject to randomized drug testing.
Russell says he can’t believe how quickly the courts have taken off. “When we started it, we thought it was the right thing to do for the community in which we were serving,” he says. “But it was something that touched the heart and spirit of many around the country. They’ve embraced the concept. They’re affording veterans some of opportunities inside their justice system to help them get back on track in their own community.”