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Veterans Courts' help return veterans to self-sufficiency

By Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy

National Guard Bureau

ARLINGTON, Va. (7/23/09) - For many veterans who end up in a courtroom facing drug-related charges, jail time may be certain.  But now there may be an alternative to prison.

Many jurisdictions throughout the country have instituted a Veterans Court program, which allows defendants facing drug charges to avoid prison in exchange for strict monitoring and enrollment in drug treatment programs.

The program features mentors, who are mostly veterans themselves, assisting participants with job placement, educational benefits and enrollment into treatment programs at local Veterans Administration hospitals.

And for many in the program, the connection with another veteran is what sets the program apart.
"The judged noticed that if a veteran came before him and he asked me to come up . the person's demeanor changed," said Jack O'Conner, a Vietnam veteran, who served with the Army and was part of the driving force that started the first Veterans Court in Buffalo, N.Y. "They trusted us more than they trusted him [the judge] or the lawyer."

Opening in January 2008, the Buffalo court has seen more than 110 veterans come through its doors and successfully leave the program, said O'Connor. And that success rate can be attributed to the mentor-veteran relationship.

"They might not want to talk to anyone when they first come in," said O'Connor. "They may just tell you to go to hell. That usually changes quickly when they talk with their fellow defendants and they find out the mentors are here to help; we're not here to criticize."

And that is one of the keys. "In drug court, the atmosphere is down," said Paul Haggerty, a former Army paratrooper and Gulf War veteran, who enrolled in a similar program in Orange County, Calif., after being arrested for theft to support a drug habit brought on by abuse of painkillers.

"People don't want to get sober; they're there to stay out of prison. In Veterans Court, you have a sense of pride. You don't feel like you're going through this alone." That sense of pride may add to the success rate of the Buffalo program. "The military person is different, in a very good way," said Anne Constantino, who works with the Buffalo Veterans Court program.

"They are very disciplined many times, structured, and they have this history that they are actually very proud of. Sometimes, other people that we see don't have that history. I see there are many strengths coming from the military population that we don't see in the general population." But that same background also has its downfalls.

"Soldiers, or those in the military, don't often ask for help very easily," said Constantino. And that may be a critical point when it comes to many combat veterans still serving in National Guard and Reserve units, who may be distanced from healthcare facilities based around active duty installations.

"We periodically get active duty, but there are a lot of reservists in western New York," said Constantino. While those who work as part of the program boast of its success rates, others have derided it as a free ride. "A lot of people think this is a fluff court, which it is not," said Patrick Welch, a Vietnam veteran who works with the Buffalo program.

"It's a no nonsense court. When the people come in there's no nonsense from the judge, there is no nonsense from the prosecutorial staff and there is no nonsense from the mentors. We lay it on the line with these people and we say you need to get your act cleaned up and you need to do better or you're going to jail."

And there are strict guidelines those in the program have to adhere to. They have to plead guilty and receive a suspended sentence with the requirement that they successfully complete the program.
While in the program, they must actively seek work or attend school, they must remain off drugs and alcohol and consent to random drug screenings and they must be enrolled in treatment programs, among other requirements.

Since its inception in early 2008, the Buffalo program had has just five of the more than 110 in the program return to the traditional criminal court system, because they could not shake narcotics or criminal behavior, said Judge Robert Russell, who worked to organize the court program.

He added that this is a far lower rate of recidivism than in drug courts, and there are other benefits as well.

"You get people, treat them and help them turn around and get their lives together and it's much cheaper than putting them in jail," said Welch. "Incarceration in New York state is about $45,000 a year per inmate.  We're not spending anywhere near that kind of money in the treatment court, keeping them out in the civilian world. We're helping them get the treatment they need, we're helping them find education."
And much of that largely falls on the program's mentors, who are mostly volunteers.

"I think most of the Vietnam vets that work in this court (as mentors) want to give something back," said O'Connor. "In Vietnam, a lot of us, when we came back, no one cared. We could have used this court then. So, we want to give back. Leave no veteran behind, that's our motto."

 But the mentors in the program are just that-mentors.

"We're not counselors," said Welch, adding that what they do as mentors is help navigate the VA system and get those in the program in to meet with qualified counselors.

And getting the veterans linked up with counselors, jobs or educational opportunities is only one goal of the program.

"The whole concept is to get them back to self-sufficiency," said Welch. "They served our country and they did a good job and for whatever reason when they got home they had issues acclimating back into society. All we're trying to do is help them and guide them along to become taxpaying citizens again."

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