Western New York Chapter 77 member Jack O'Connor has put together a program called Veterans Court in conjunction with the Buffalo Police Department, Buffalo City Court Judge Robert T. Russell, Jr., and the Buffalo VA Medical Center. The object of the Veterans Court program is to keep veterans who are arrested for low-level crimes out of jail. The program provides VA counselors to work with these veterans with the idea of getting them into appropriate treatment programs. If a veteran successfully completes the program, which Judge Russell monitors, charges may be dropped and the veteran will not have to serve jail time.
Wade Sanders | September 11, 2008
It is a cold fact that up to a third of the men and women in our nation's prisons are veterans. It is also a cold fact that recidivism is a major problem in the United States. This revolving door of incarceration is all too often attributable to a prison system that is little more than a graduate program in advanced crime. This is unacceptable. We need to be more discerning about providing this education. Fortunately, with regard to combat veterans who are caught up in the criminal justice system, there are new tools emerging: new laws offering a new approach to an old problem with Veterans' Courts to administer them. In California, and an emerging number of states, that is an alternative sentencing law.
No one doubts that combat veterans serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, touched by the horrors of war and returning home, are forever changed. Some will cope, but a large percentage are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or related psychological problems. In addition, there are still thousands of Vietnam and Desert Storm veterans who are struggling with combat-related issues. Regrettably, many of them are, and will, come into contact with law enforcement. Our society put them in harm's way, and it shares responsibility for their damage in our service. Parades, flag-waving and patriotic slogans are great, but we owe them far more than that. They have earned a level of consideration that is commensurate with their sacrifice. This is not giving special treatment; it is recognizing how special their service has been.
The new laws provide sentencing options that are an alternative to incarceration. In California it is Penal Code Section 1170.9, signed into law in 2007, which recognizes the veteran's sacrifice and society's responsibility. It provides the criminal justice system as a whole, the prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation officers, and judges, with new options in dealing with veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. Depending on the nature of the offense, and wherever possible, the new laws give judges the discretion to apply what some refer to as "problem-solving justice" in framing remedies. Punishment where appropriate, but not for punishment's sake, and avoid unnecessary harm if possible.
This new approach is still so new that very few defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges are aware of its existence. In essence, it provides that once a combat veteran is convicted, and is otherwise eligible for probation, and certain requirements are met, the judge has an option other than sentencing the combat veteran to prison or jail. Once a clear connection is established between the offense and a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, or psychological problems stemming from service in a combat theater in the United States military, the judge may order the defendant into a local, state, federal, or private nonprofit treatment program. Of course, the veteran has to agree to this alternative. If the veteran successfully completes the program, the court may dismiss the charges.
In California, and other states, there are a many such private programs, as well as some that exist within the Veterans Administration and Counties. Some the better known ones are Veterans Village in San Diego (which already has a court referred defendant) and U.S. Vets in Long Beach. These are residential facilities that deal with the victims of post traumatic stress injuries are a vital asset for the courts and for the recovery of our veterans to a productive life. Prison is no remedy.
Currently the debate regarding this code section centers on the nature of offenses that will be considered for alternative sentencing. Although, in California, the only requirement concerning the offense is that the defendant be eligible for probation, there may be some offenses that will not be considered by District Attorneys or Judges. Violent felonies, for one, are difficult choices. The bottom line is that the judge will have the discretion to determine, on a case by case basis, which offenses to accept.
Education is the key to any new approach. Our entire criminal justice system needs to recognize and understand this new approach and accept that we share a significant responsibility for the welfare of our combat veterans. This brings me to the second new remedy: Veterans' Courts. Already, in some jurisdictions, such as Orange County, California and Buffalo, New York, Veterans' Courts are being established within the state court system. And, U.S. Senators Kerry, Murkowski, and Durbin have introduced Senate Bill 3379 which, if passed, will provide funds for the establishment of these courts nationwide. This is an issue which grows with importance with every year this nation is at war, and for the generations that will follow.
Clearly this dialogue cannot begin too soon. The clock is ticking, and every day another combat veteran is overwhelmed by the damage he or she has suffered in our service. We cannot afford to be as unprepared to care for our veterans as we were for the present war. The dialogue between all elements of the criminal justice system and veterans' services should begin immediately, and it is incumbent upon members of law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys, the judiciary and probation departments to make an aggressive beginning. Does anyone doubt that we owe our combat veterans anything less?
Court Aims to Help Vets with Legal Troubles
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Morning Edition, April 29, 2008 · As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan put renewed focus on the issue of veterans' mental health, a judge in Buffalo, N.Y., has created a special court to assist veterans who wind up in the criminal justice system.
Gary Pettengill wanted to make a career out of the military, but the Army made him take a medical discharge in 2006 after he injured his back in Iraq. At the time, Pettengill was 23 and married, with a third child on the way.
To cope with what he says were empty days and nightmares caused by post-traumatic stress disorder, Pettengill says he started smoking marijuana. Then he began selling it to pay his bills. In February, he was arrested during a drug sweep and accused of being in possession of two pounds of marijuana.