By the time he was 30, Thomas Zaborowski had spent a decade struggling with the aftermath of his Army stint. An incident at a military base in South Korea—something he still won't talk about—left him with an honorable discharge and a 30 percent disability rating from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Shortly after returning home, he ran into trouble with the law. Arrests for DWI and for marijuana possession were followed by a criminal mischief charge for punching a phone during an argument with his now ex-wife.
After the third arrest, he was given an option: Face a 10-day jail sentence, or go to a special court for veterans that just opened in his hometown of Buffalo. Zaborowski chose veterans court. "I never realized there was so much help out there," he says.
The Buffalo veterans court, started last year by Erie County Court Judge Robert Russell, is the most prominent one in the country. An earlier, less formal version began in Anchorage in 2004. And at least eight veterans courts have opened in the past year or will soon, including ones in Chicago; Tulsa, Okla.; and Orange County, Calif. Some 20 other municipalities are considering launching them. And in Washington, Sen. John Kerry plans to reintroduce a bill from last year that would set up a grant program to help develop such courts nationwide.
As thousands of combat veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan, their numbers and visibility have helped create a nationwide push for new mechanisms to aid veterans who are having trouble reintegrating into life back home. A few critics are balking at what they see as preferential treatment for veterans. But the courts' backers say that the system, which works much like therapeutic drug courts, is tailored to veterans' specific needs and can better take into account their physical and emotional condition.
One key driver for the courts' popularity has been increased sensitivity toward the prevalence of serious, undertreated ailments, like post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries, that, according to studies, can produce higher rates of drug abuse, domestic violence, and other criminality. The Pentagon's latest estimates suggest that up to 20 percent of U.S. troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered brain injuries. Also, with more soldiers serving multiple combat tours, the incidence of PTSD is getting higher. A 2008 survey found that more than a quarter of soldiers who have served three or four tours in Iraq show symptoms of PTSD, compared with only 12 percent of those who served a single tour.
For example, at Fort Carson, Colo., where many soldiers who have served in Iraq two or three times are stationed, charges against current or former soldiers for domestic violence, sexual assault, and homicide have risen sharply over the past few years. Five killings occurred last year alone.
Although the courts have gained support in part because more and more veterans are returning home from combat, their popularity also reflects the concerns of those who lived through the Vietnam era. In particular, they want today's soldiers to be treated with more understanding. "We won't allow what happened to us to happen to them," says Hank Pirowski, a Vietnam veteran and the Buffalo court's project director. Terry Hubert, another Vietnam veteran, agrees. He recalls the ambivalent reception that he got on his return from war. Without safety nets in place or much understanding of PTSD, it's little wonder that he, along with many of his comrades, had run-ins with the law, says Hubert, who works on incarcerated veterans issues for the nonprofit Vietnam Veterans of America. By 1986, veterans accounted for 20 percent of all state prisoners. The percentage has dropped dramatically since. But, Hubert says, "we expect to see that number start increasing."
Wary of repeating history, judges took notice when the number of veterans coming through their courts appeared to spike. The most recent nationwide statistics show that veterans were half as likely to be incarcerated as civilians in 2004, but judges across the country report that the number seems to have climbed since then.
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."
Still, not everyone supports the courts. Critics, including some veterans, worry about what they see as the courts' perpetuation of stereotypes. Others criticize the idea of creating a separate class of offenders solely on the basis of military service. "It's been popular to create this illusion of these people coming home from the war who are now somehow deficient," says Kevin Creed, an Army veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now an attorney in Bristol, Conn. "They're not wacky wing nuts that have to come home to be treated differently than the average American. If you have veterans courts, what does that say about veterans?"
At a time when municipalities are slashing budgets, some people are wary of the cost. Since most judges carve out the sessions on their own time and treatments are usually done through the VA or other groups, the extra expense, says Pirowski, stems from hiring a court coordinator and case managers. Although he jokes that he's been "afraid" to calculate the cost of the extra time that he and other administrators spend, he estimates that the total cost of each veteran going through the court is $2,700. Jail, he says, costs between $30,000 and $32,000 per year.
To veterans who have been through the courts, though, the cost savings can't begin to quantify the benefits. Now clean, Zaborowski plans to attend college next spring. He will be the first in his family to go to college. He'll use funding he can get as a veteran, an option he didn't know he had until he found out through the court. Thoughts of his three children keep him on track, but the fact that he has a plan, he says, is because of the veterans court.
Zaborowski tried to show what that meant at a hearing. He used to attend court in sneakers, with uncombed hair. This month, he got a haircut, bought a couple of ties, and went on the Web to figure out how to tie them. "I spent an hour, hour and a half trying to learn to tie a tie. All just for the court, to show them I appreciate everything. I really don't want to let them down."