Retired Judge: A Special Court to Deal Effectively with Convicted Veterans

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The writer was a 52nd District Court judge in Novi and assistant state attorney general.  He's chief financial officer of the Justice Speakers Institute and a Deadline Detroit contributor.

By Brian MacKenzie

A soldier, let’s call him Joe, was severely wounded in Iraq.  He was riding in a vehicle when an IED exploded under it.  His physical wounds were treated, if not well, at a battlefield hospital, but his mental ones were untouched. Shortly before he was wounded Joe saw another road bomb kill four friends.

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He returned home to Michigan in both serious physical and psychological pain. The battlefield surgery had run rods up his arms and into his tendons.  He was also suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).  His marriage ended and he could not work due to his physical pain.

To cope with the pain and the PTSD he turned to alcohol and marijuana.  And of course he was arrested.  After pleading guilty to operating while impaired, at sentencing, he agreed to be one of first participants in a Veterans Treatment Court. At that time there were less than twenty Veterans Treatment Courts in the United States with only two in Michigan. Now, there are more than 20 in Michigan alone.

The United States has been sending troops to fight the war on terror for almost a generation and recent studies have shown that 26% of the of those who have served, return with invisible wounds in the form of serious mental health injuries, such as PTSD or traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Experts have linked criminal behavior with both PTSD and TBI. The most common criminal behaviors that veterans suffering from these are: traffic violations like reckless driving, domestic violence, other assaults, drunk driving  drug possession and firearms offenses.

Paradoxically, upon conviction for these crimes, studies have shown that Courts gave harsher sentences to the men and women who served their country then to those who did not.  The United States Department of Justice, which studied incarcerated veterans, concluded that there was a sentencing disparity of about one additional year imprisonment. 

Veterans treatment court is a specialized docket for veterans who have been arrested and convicted of a crime. Veterans Courts identify veterans, connect them to services and link them to a support network so as prevent repeat behavior and reduce the number of imprisoned vets.

While entry into the Veterans Court is voluntary, the drug treatment court concept of coerced treatment and individual accountability are integral. 

The veteran is required to participate in treatment, appear for probation appointments, and to meet all the terms ordered by the court.  Each individual is required to abstain completely from illegal drugs and/or alcohol. Failure to do so results in sanctions including possible removal from VTC. Success brings praise and rewards.

The team approach developed by Drug Treatment Courts is used to obtain the best possible outcome. 

Veterans Court teams are composed of the judge, a prosecutor, a defense attorney, probation staff, a representative of the Veterans Health Administration (VA), a representative of the local or county veterans department, veteran mentors and other treatment professionals. 

Team members meet at the courthouse regularly for staffing sessions that occur before status hearings. 

The probation officer presents basic information about each veteran and each team member  can make comments. The judge,works to ensure that all members of the team have a voice, and attempts to achieve consensus. The entire approach is non-adversarial, with a strong emphasis on cooperation among team members. 

After the staffing session the judge presides over a status hearing. Rewards are given for successful behavior and sanctions are ordered for failure to meet program requirements.  The judge provides the rewards and orders the sanctions. Once the defendant has completed all program requirements, they graduate from probation.

Veterans Court also helps to create relationships between the participant and other veterans through the use of volunteer "mentors." The objective of mentors is to match people with similar service histories and experiences who are better-suited to understand the issues of readjustment to civilian life.

While the emphasis is always on the individual defendant, group statistics are compiled to ensure that the best possible supervision and treatment approaches are employed. The team uses the data combined with continuing interdisciplinary education to improve the program.

Results from the earliest Veterans Courts are remarkable.

In Joe’s case, the court working with the Veterans Administration, arranged for a corrective operation that removed most of his physical pain. Then he received long term treatment for his PTSD, which he believes kept him from ending up in prison saying; “I am living proof that Veterans Courts work.”

Nov. 11 is Veterans Day. Let’s remember all wounded vets like Joe, and in so doing,  encourage the criminal justice system to create more Veterans Courts so no veterans is left behind.







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