August 10, 2017

Annual 2017: NY vet treatment courts offered as models of success

For the last year, ABA President Linda Klein’s Veterans Legal Services Commission has been working on its mission in multiple ways. The 20-member commission is developing VetLex, a comprehensive online network to link veterans with pro bono and low bono lawyers; increased the number of medical-legal partnerships at VA medical centers across the country; and held several CLEs on forming and enhancing veterans legal clinics, among other accomplishments. 

On Saturday, Aug. 12, from 10–11:30 a.m., the commission will present a panel discussion, “Serving Soldiers in Veterans Treatment Courts: Implementation and Effective Advocacy,” at the New York Hilton Midtown during the ABA Annual Meeting.

During the program, representatives from New York veterans treatment courts in Suffolk County, Queens and Buffalo, including Judge Robert Russell, who founded the VTC concept, will discuss their pioneering efforts using these specially tailored courts. VTCs involve prosecution, defense and support services, which effectively resolve criminal matters while also offering services to prevent recidivism. The panelists, who now lead programs that are models for the rest of the nation, will share best practices on implementing such courts where they do not currently exist.

The panel’s moderator, Christine Edwards, assistant deputy counsel to the Office of Policy and Planning for the New York State Unified Court System, says the panelists, some of whom are veterans, represent New York’s geographical diversity. 

“Each VTC is structured somewhat differently based on the resources available in that community and the style of the presiding judge,” she explains.  “The non-judicial panelists work in different VTCs around the state and provide a different perspective based upon their roles and experience.”

The program’s format will be a discussion, which will elicit each panelist’s perspective on:

  • VTC planning and implementation
  • Operational issues
  • Challenges
  • Lessons learned

It will end with questions from the audience.

Panelist Judge Robert Russell, associate judge for Buffalo City Court, created and began presiding over the nation’s first Veterans’ Treatment Court in 2008.  Prior to that, he created Buffalo’s Drug Treatment Court in 1995 and continues to serve as its presiding judge. In addition, in December 2002, he established Buffalo’s Mental Health Treatment Court. 

VTCs aim to achieve positive veteran behavior by providing a holistic and integrated set of support services, including:

  • substance abuse services
  • mental health services
  • academic and/or vocational skills
  • housing assistance
  • outpatient and/or transition support
  • job placement and job retention services.

Russell advises that VTC judges benefit from having a working knowledge of military culture and learning how to create a conducive court environment for veteran participants to excel in the program.

He has about 120 veterans in his VTC each year, and is gratified by the number of jurisdictions and courts across the nation that have worked toward providing these needed services for our veterans.

Judge Marcia Hirsch presides over five felony-level treatment courts in Queens County in New York City, including the VTC, which began in 2010.

Describing herself as “passionate” about her work, Hirsch turns to “The Drug Court Judicial Benchbook” for guidance. It describes a drug court judge as “a leader, a communicator, an educator, a community collaborator and an institution builder.” 

“A veterans’ court judge, in my opinion, is all of those things, plus being the driving force behind creating a docket that understands military culture and the distinct needs that arise from service in the U.S. Armed Forces,” she says. 

Hirsch estimates that she handles 30-40 veteran cases per year, including “new pleas, case monitoring and any violations of probation that come back to me.”

“Working with veterans is one of the most rewarding parts of my job,” she says. “Their level of compliance is high, and they strive to complete our program and re-build their lives for themselves and their families.”

Panelist Timothy E. Thayne, a prosecutor at the Suffolk County Veterans Treatment Court, evaluates veterans as candidates for the VTC. He also monitors his assigned veterans’ performance while they are awaiting sentence and advises the court as to their progress in the program.

Gary Horton, also on the panel, is director of the new Veterans Defense Program at the New York State Defenders Association. A former public defender, he was assigned to the Genesee County VTC when it began in 2011. He attributes the peer mentoring system built into VTCs and veterans’ comfort with structure and natural sense of mission for their significantly higher success rate compared to other treatment courts.

Edwards adds that another reason these courts work is because there are many service providers and individuals who want to give back to veterans.  

Because many of the recent conflict veterans have PTSD or TBI or both, it is Horton’s goal that they leave the VTC with “a better understanding of their condition and better coping skills, which will serve as the foundation for a more successful re-integration into their community.”

He adds that the defense counsel’s greatest challenge, “is encouraging military cultural competence amongst court personnel, prosecutors, defense attorneys and other professionals staffing these courts, most of whom are not veterans. If we do not understand the veterans experience at some level we cannot competently help them.”

Hirsch hopes attendees to the program “will leave with a better understanding of the work of Veterans Treatment Courts, and will support their growth in their communities,” she says. “Perhaps some attendees will become volunteer attorneys in some capacity, as the legal needs of veterans are many; or perhaps those who are veterans may wish to become veteran mentors.”

Also on the panel are Frank D’Aversa, a veteran mentor, and Judge John J. Toomey, both of the Suffolk County Veterans Court.