August 15, 2017

Veterans treatment courts are a “game changer” and easy to implement, judges say

At the Annual Meeting in New York City, three New York state judges, a defense attorney, a district attorney and a veteran mentor discussed their experiences working in veterans treatment courts. They took part in the program, “Serving Soldiers in Veterans Treatment Courts ­– Implementation and Effective Advocacy,” sponsored by the ABA Veterans Legal Services Initiative.

VTCs involve prosecution, defense and support services, which effectively resolve criminal matters while also offering services to veterans to prevent recidivism.

The panelists agreed that military training and mindset, as well as the “leave no brother behind” ethos, combine to help make VTCs so successful.

New York is the home of the first VTC and now has 31, with five more coming soon.

Veteran signifiers

At the program “Veterans and the Courts: Serving Those Who Have Served” hosted by the ABA Judicial Division and also held at the ABA Annual Meeting in New York, Brett Walker, assistant district attorney for the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office in Boston, gave pointers for how judges, lawyers and others in the court system can identify veterans:

  • Look for a KIA bracelet;
  • Look for a woven rope bracelet;
  •  Fashion that may be from a decade ago;
  • The use of the terms, “sir,” and “ma’am;”
  • The use of certain vocabulary, such as “overseas” instead of “other countries;”
  • They may put one arm behind their back when standing;
  • May have a tattoo of a crest, shield or have numbers with a hyphen, which may be associated with a unit number.

The origin of VTCs

In 2008, Judge Robert Russell had a veteran in his Buffalo mental health treatment court who “wasn’t progressing,” and he asked two veterans on his staff to speak with him. They did, and the veteran came back ready to commit himself to treatment. That convinced the judge that they should have a docket just for veterans. He discussed the idea at a VA hospital and veterans there immediately volunteered to serve as mentors.

Veterans are trained in discipline, leadership and structure, Russell said, so they have a high potential to succeed, and differ “quite a bit” from other defendants.

Suffolk County Judge John Toomey was a “regular trial judge” when he noticed an increase in veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan “and meeting at the crossroads of the criminal justice system,” due to alcohol abuse, drug abuse, PTSD and traumatic brain injury. Because Toomey is a Vietnam veteran, another judge asked him start a VTC. He said he was allowed to set it up any way he wanted. He now has 12 mentors for the veterans, and he knows all his veterans by name, their crimes and their issues, he said.

Toomey said running a VTC doesn’t cost anything: he simply adjusts the court docket for veterans, and the mentors are volunteers. He thinks there should be a VTC in every county.

Judge Marcia Hirsch of the state Supreme Court was already presiding over four other “problem-solving” courts in Queens County in 2010 when she noticed they all had veteran defendants. She thought the county could benefit from a VTC. Her staff was trained in Judge Russell’s court, and she let the other judges and bar associations know when it was up and running.

Addressing veterans’ unique issues

Because each VTC can be set up to respond to the local landscape, each has different characteristics.

Toomey thinks it’s essential to take care of the PTSD before tackling drug or alcohol dependence. His county has a 30-day in-house PTSD program where they can refer the veterans.

“We take good and bad paper,” Hirsch said, referring to the terms used for honorable and less-than-honorable discharges, so her court sometimes has to find service providers outside the VA. When veterans come in with “bad paper,” the court works to find them medical insurance, medical providers and other services. Then they work to find the underlying issue – drugs, alcohol, TBI, PTSD.

She said the hardest thing for her court can be locating the veterans. They can be ashamed and reluctant to admit to being a vet. She accepts veterans in her court at any point in the judicial process (i.e., transfers from other judges), but says it’s key to connect them with services early. The veterans in her court are all screened for trauma, and many have it. In addition to Iraq and Afghanistan, she sees lots of Vietnam and Gulf War veterans, who have different needs, many related to aging.

In addition, women veterans have different issues in that many have military sexual trauma, Hirsch said, and her court now has women vet mentors they can call on.

Ken Rosenblum, retired director of the Touro Law Center Veterans’ and Service members Rights Clinic and a Vietnam vet, who works with veterans, said Suffolk County also used to have trouble identifying veterans in the system. But police now ask the suspect if they have served in the military, which has produced more positive results than asking, “Are you a veteran?” Probation officers also ask the question, which helps them get help to more veterans.

Another issue that has come up is with foreign veterans. The father of an Israeli veteran asked if his son could go to Toomey’s VTC. Toomey said yes, knowing they would have to go to agencies other than the VA for assistance. Most VTCs do not take foreign vets, and usually refer them to a different treatment court, Russell said.

Mentors are key to success

Veterans may tell their mentor something they’ve never told anyone else, Rosenblum said.

He interviews and trains mentors, and goes over the docket with them in a coffee shop, where Toomey often joins them, he said. The mentors get regular feedback from the judge, stand in the courtroom with the veteran and become familiar with court procedures.

For veteran mentors connecting to the veterans in the program, Rosenblum has found that combat status transcends age, race and even branch of service, but not yet gender.

Mentors in Russell’s court fundraise so that they have more ways to connect vets to resources.

Hirsch said it helps if the mentors have a flexible schedule or are retired, so they can be available during the day.

Rosenblum said it helps to have mentors with an understanding of PTSD and what’s available to treat it. Treatment goes better when there is a shared knowledge of the condition and how to manage it, he said.

Additional support

In Russell’s Buffalo VTC, two legal aides help with any civil legal issue the vet has. They also have veteran “pods” in the jails, staffed by veterans, who support one another.

Veterans come before Toomey every two weeks during treatment and he comes to knows each of them. He stresses that they need to be self-motivated to succeed, but lets them know that if they fall he will help pick them back up.

Timothy Thayne, a former defense attorney and now assistant DA in Binghamton, N.Y., said you have to expect relapses, but that they just get the vet help again. The key is for the veteran to be honest about it, he said. Lying about it can bring a sanction.

Gary Horton, director of NY State Defenders Association Veterans Defense Program, in Genesee County, says he tries to promote military cultural competency in New York jurisdictions where there is not yet a VTC.

Running the VTC is “the greatest thing I’ve ever done as a judge and lawyer,” Judge Toomey said, and noted that his court has a 95 percent success rate.

He spoke for the other judges when he called VTCs a “game changer.”