November 16th, 2011
Order In The Veterans Courthttp://blogs.menshealth.com/men-at-war/order-in-the-veterans-court/2011/11/16/?org=403&org=403&lvl=100&ite=236&lea=303&ctr=0&par=1
Not quite certain how I feel about this, is why I’m hoping all of you out there will shout out with feedback. Do know, however, that I like the guy who told me the story.
Have you heard of the concept of Veterans’ Courts? I hadn’t until just the other day when I chatted up the Minneapolis criminal defense attorney Brock Hunter. Hunter is former Army Recon, and such a strong advocate for these specialized courts that he spends a lot of time traveling the country to trying to educate judges, prosecutors, and even cops and bailiffs as to their efficacy.
Specialized courts for drug, alcohol, and domestic violence abusers have been around for decades. (And I’m not certain how I feel about them, either.) In a nutshell, a Veterans Court is somewhat similar to these courts, but with a military twist, kind of like a rehab program with legal consequences. Say you’re back from OIF or OEF. You’re either out of the service, home on leave, or maybe just off base. You do something stupid … and illegal. Get thrown out of a bar after drinking too much and then hassle the cops called to the scene. Hit your wife. Get caught carrying an illegal piece. Instead of your ass being hauled down to the local hoosegow, you are instead brought before a magistrate who is a veteran himself, to be prosecuted and defended by attorneys who are veterans, and accompanied by bailiffs who, if not veterans, have at least been instructed in the Veterans Courts procedural points. A VA social worker may attend your arraignment, perhaps accompanied by an older veteran who may be appointed as your mentor. In a perfect world, even your probation officer could be a vet.
“Nobody is asking for any special treatment,” the defense attorney Hunter tells me. “Just a better understanding of what some of these guys – and they are predominantly male veterans who find themselves on the wrong side of the law – have been through and what they are going through as they re-enter and readjust to civilian society.”
Hunter tells me that so far about 70 of these nascent specialized courts, “petrie dishes,” have been stood up across the country. Some won’t go near violent or felony charges, some will. “They’re all doing it differently as they tend to be grass roots efforts that just pop up in individual jurisdictions rather than a top-down approach from the state level. And in sites where they are not formally in place, there are some ad hoc, broad approaches being taken, particularly in rural areas. Where you go to a regular arraignment, for example, and try to apply the Veterans Court approach.”
That approach basically consists of a couple of key elements: treatment and accountability. Sometimes, Hunter says, an unhinged vet won’t even admit he has a problem until they slap the cuffs on him.
“It’s the Superman Stigma,” he says. “Sometimes if everyone is reasonable, the criminal charge itself is not such a bad thing. When you’re facing jail time and the blot on your record, you tend to wake up to your psychological problem a little sooner.”
Of course, often it does not even come to that. If a prosecutor and judge are willing, a vet who has been arrested may even be taken to the nearest VA Hospital to be psychologically evaluated before an arraignment occurs. This is called a pre-charge diversion and – again, only if the prosecutor agrees – if, say, PTSD or TBI is assessed and the vet completes a treatment program, the charges might be dropped.
“That’s a best-case scenario,” says Hunter. “Like when cops have standoffs with suicidal veterans and probably could have charged them with some kind of offense, but it was so clear that they were not in their right mind. They were instead taken to a psychiatric facility and then to the VA.”
Outside of the suicidal vet scenario, however, other crimes are a tough sell for pre-charge diversion. District attorneys and prosecutors are not exactly known for their tender hearts. And, as Hunter adds, “They don’t often go for a system in which they are not going to be the ones in control. They want to be the ones to decide whether to charge or not, not some VA Doc. From their perspective, they would rather charge because now they have some leverage over that vet. Some prosecutors are ultra cynical. But believe it or not, more and more are coming around. I mean, it’s like, ‘Just look at this poor guy. He fought for our country. He’s got problems. He can’t find a job. And now you’re going to make him a felon?’”
The United States is edging up to close to 2 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Some of them are going to get in trouble. Health experts expect a minimum of 20 percent, probably more, to return home with some kind of psychological baggage related to their service. (The VA once pegged the number for Vietnam vets at 33 percent.) That’s how Hunter, who served on the Korean DMZ in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the 2nd ID before getting out and earning his law degree, got into this pro bono business.
“I watched these Vietnam vets coming through the system, nobody understanding their stress, and figured we have to do something about this. The whole idea now is to take advantage of the lessons that we’ve learned, the new-found knowledge that we have about the causes and treatments for PTSD, for TBI, and do it better this time around with the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
“The thing that’s going to make these wars tougher to deal with is the multiple deployment issue. In Vietnam we had a draft, and few people volunteered for more than a single tour. For this generation, two and three combat deployments is commonplace even for National Guardsmen and Reserves. And that’s not even taking into account the elite Special Forces units with their five, six, seven, eight tours. We have no precedent for this, and I don’t think we really even have a concept of what it’s going to be like when those folks start coming home in large numbers.”
What Hunter and others like him are counting on is a greater awakening among ordinary Americans and, perforce, by the criminal justice system to not only the depth of these psychological maladies, but to the counterproductive legal remedies against veterans from past wars charged with crimes that were, in reality, the symptoms of an illness.
As I say, I am not sure how I feel about this. Is it special treatment? Is it a duplicative waste of tax payer money? Or do we owe these vets the extra mile. I’m a pretty soft-hearted fellow. And many would add soft-headed. Which is why I’m asking for your feedback. C’mon, set me straight.