New Courts Give Troubled Veterans a Second Chance

The system can better take account of a veteran's physical and emotional condition.

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The special courts usually cover misdemeanor charges in which the crime somehow relates to someone's military service, although the Buffalo court also accepts felonies. The aim is to get defendants treatment, not time behind bars. The courts are often run by judges who are veterans themselves and usually offer mentorship programs to defendants. The veterans' punishments are lessened if they follow precise programs, which can include everything from mental health counseling to job skills training, and, if applicable, test clean in frequent drug and alcohol tests.

"It's basically a contract," says Superior Court Judge Jack Smith, one of the two jurists who started the Anchorage court. "The prosecutor gives them two options: This is what's going to happen with your criminal case if you follow through with treatment; this is what will happen if you don't." The treatment option, he adds, is "more time and more effort." One of the first veterans to go through the Alaska court, for example, could have served jail time and finished in fewer than 30 days, Smith recalls. Instead, he underwent an 18-month treatment program at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The rigor of the treatment programs explains why some choose the criminal sentence, says Army veteran Michael Brooks, 44. Brooks was arrested last year for theft after "so many [previous arrests] that I can't count," he says. Because he wanted to turn his life around, he says, he chose veterans court. He managed to kick his drug habit. Today, he works as a minister and is getting married next month. But for those who aren't ready to make the commitment, he says, jail time often seems easier.

The courts coordinate closely with the VA, working to get defendants hooked into services and opportunities that they otherwise wouldn't know about. In Connecticut, says state Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, there isn't even direct communication between the military and local VA offices about soldiers returning home. "There are lots of people who fall between the cracks, and we don't become aware of them until they wind up in the criminal justice system," he says. Looney has introduced a bill that would create a statewide veterans court.

The courts are still too new to evaluate their full impact. But early data from Anchorage and Buffalo point to some success. Of the 34 veterans who went through the Anchorage court from July 2004 to July 2006, only one has been rearrested, according to Judge Smith. Most studies of drug court graduates have found that a quarter to a half of offenders are rearrested within two years; for those not in special courts, the figure is thought to be about two thirds. The Buffalo program, with only eight graduates, is too new to have meaningful recidivism figures, but Pirowski says one good sign is that 93 percent of the veterans' treatment appointments are kept. At general treatment clinics, that rate averages 35 percent, he says.

Some of the success may be intangible. The veterans often enter the courtroom "disheveled" and downtrodden, Pirowski says. "But they get in that courtroom, and something strange happens. They stand up straighter."

Veterans who have been through the court agree, saying that both the presence of other veterans and what they see as the court's attempt to humanize them have potent effects. When Zaborowski first entered the court, he thought it would be just like the drunk-driving program, where, the now-31-year-old says, "they just kind of roll you through. They don't really care." But veterans court was different. "One of the first things Judge Russell asked me was 'How are you? Tell me a little bit about yourself,' " he recalls. "I was like, 'What do you care?' No judge had ever asked me that."

Most of the courts also feature formal mentorship programs, drawing on the theme of a "band of brothers." "I felt like they were more on my side, trying to help me, versus just trying to get me locked up," says Henry, 39, a Desert Storm Army veteran who went through the court in Anchorage. To Henry, who asked that his last name be withheld, that attitude made all the difference. Without the court, he says, "I'd probably be dead or locked up."