Judge: Keep Vets Out of Jail
CHERYL CORLEY, host:
I'm Cheryl Corley, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Later in the program we'll here from a World War II vet about the movie industry's neglect of the role of black troops. But first, it's time for Wisdom Watch where we visit with respected elders, people who are not just smart, but wise.
And today we're visiting with a judge interested in tempered justice, especially for veterans. The ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are drawing attention to the health and welfare of veterans. Too often the men and women who serve the country face challenges coping when they return to civilian life that leads to some legal trouble.
But a special court in Buffalo, New York assists veterans who wind up in the criminal justice system giving them help, rather than jail time. And joining us now to talk about this is Judge Robert Russell. He first started holding sessions in the specialized court for treating veterans this past January. Welcome to the show.
Judge ROBERT RUSSELL (Buffalo, New York): Thank you very much, and it's a pleasure to be here.
CORLEY: Judge Russell, I understand this is the only court of its kind in the country. Tell us a little bit about it. What spurred you to start the program in the first place?
Judge RUSSELL: Last year we did a quick count, and we noticed that approximately 300 veterans were coming to our criminal justice system. And that was just here locally in the city of Buffalo. We realized that one in five, as reported by the veteran's administration, veterans that were returning were experiencing symptoms related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, major depression, traumatic brain injuries, and things of that sort. And those were the ones that were able to detect.
A number of veterans did not disclose that they were suffering certain trauma as a result of being deployed. We wanted to be anticipatory rather than just reactionary, and we knew they we could do something more to service that population.
We then began planning and working closely with a local director of our veteran's hospital, and through this collaborative process we began, and started a veterans' treatment court.
CORLEY: Judge Russell, can you tell us how many people have gone through your court so far?
Judge RUSSELL: Well, right now we have a little over 40 veterans that we're working with. These veterans range from the Vietnam conflict to the Desert Storm, to the Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, the most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
CORLEY: I was wondering the types of crimes that these veterans commit. Are they people who commit violent crimes or nonviolent crimes in order to come into this court, and have the prospect of getting treatment, as opposed to jail time?
Judge RUSSELL: We're talking about nonviolent offenses. Those that might range from driving while intoxicated, theft offenses, drug possession offenses. You may have some on a case by case that'll be evaluated with the district attorney's office that there might be allegations of violence, such as some domestic violence-related issues or turmoils in the home or household, issues where the spouse and the family members are asking for help for the veterans.
In addition, you might also have veterans engaged in bar fights, things of that sort, the type of behavior where they are not acting in a way that you would expect a returning veteran to act. But at the same time many of them are suffering from different disorders that we know, if receiving the proper treatment, that they could get their lives back on track.
CORLEY: What is the appropriate, proper treatment? I understand that part of the strategy is to kind of pair veterans up with volunteer mentors, as part of the strategy.
Judge RUSSELL: It's interesting, because many of our veterans have a warrior mentality. Some perceive that treatment may be for the weak, and we're working to change that paradigm. And that is, that it takes courage and strength of a warrior to ask for help.
In addition, we also realize by having mentors, many veterans feel that those who have not gone through that experience cannot relate to exactly what they're going through. However, having a veteran who has gone through similar experiences being able to work with them, encourage them, assist them, we're finding some great rewards from those relationships.
CORLEY: What happens if these veterans are not following the program and, you know, have been offered this appropriate treatment as you call it, and just can't seem to follow through on it?
Judge RUSSELL: I would actually see the person in the beginning, maybe once every other week, and then as time moves on at least once a month. We work on the premise of creating incentives, and also consequences for inappropriate behavior, such as not following the treatment plan, medication, things of that sort.
If a person fails to comply, then ultimately they could face the original criminal charges. They could return back to the regular criminal calendar, or if the case was sentenced to me as a result of sentencing, then the court could sentence them to the penalties of imprisonment or incarceration.
The cases I do handle are both felony and misdemeanors. So there is a great incentive for them to work to get their lives back on track.
And I can state this, that we've so far, even though it's been a short time period, we received and have been receiving great compliance in these individuals attending and keeping these appointments in addition to remaining clean and sober and following their plan, and I attribute a lot of that to us having veterans as mentors.
CORLEY: So you are saying the court's been fairly successful at this point.
Judge RUSSELL: Oh, very much so.
CORLEY: How many chances do veterans get before they are thrown back into the regular criminal system, if it comes to that? Is it one time or...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Judge RUSSELL: Oh, no.
CORLEY: Or do you have a couple of times before?
(Soundbite of laughter)
CORLEY: You laugh. It's hard to comply to these treatment programs?
Judge RUSSELL: I laugh only because there is not a scale or a chart of how many chances a person receive. We understand that a person who is going through challenges, whether it's mental health or addiction, that it does take patience, and also takes a great amount of oversight. It takes great amount of courage. It also takes a great amount, if need be, of sanctions of consequences to motivate them to stay focused on what they need to stay focused with.
CORLEY: Well, a lot of people have mental problems, a number of people have drug problems, as well. I was wondering if you had complaints from anyone else, courts or anyone else that veterans might be getting some specialized treatment that's not open to anybody else that has problems.
Judge RUSSELL: Personally I have not, and I'm not aware, however, I'm sure that could be an issue that is raised, why are they receiving specialized treatment? And at the same time, I realize that now across the United States we have over 2,000 treatment courts.
I also realize we have probably close to if not over 200 mental health treatment courts. And the question is for someone who has made these sacrifices for our liberty, why shouldn't we have a veteran's treatment court?
CORLEY: Judge Robert Russell presides over the nation's first court to help veterans. He joined us from WNED in Buffalo, New York. Judge Russell thank you so much.
Judge RUSSELL: Oh, and thank you for having me.
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