The New York State Bar Association has called on state leaders to expand the availability of veterans treatment courts throughout New York.
"As we celebrate Veterans Day, we should recognize the special needs of veterans within the justice system. Veterans treatment courts offer those who have served our county an opportunity to rebuild their lives," said State Bar President Glenn Lau-Kee of New York City (Kee & Lau-Kee).
Many veterans face difficulties in transitioning to civilian lives, and struggle with service-related health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and other mental health conditions. Left untreated, these conditions can result in joblessness, substance abuse or addiction, disruption of families, and, in some cases, criminal prosecution.
The nation's first veterans treatment court was created in Buffalo in 2008. It grew out of concern Judge Robert T. Russell had about a growing number of veterans returning from military service suffered from substance abuse and mental health issues related to their military service.
Considered the national model, the Buffalo veterans treatment court offers a second chance to defendants charged with a misdemeanor or non-violent felony.
Participation by a defendant is voluntary. An assessment is made of the factors that may have contributed to the alleged criminal behavior.
The judge regularly monitors each veteran/defendant's success in achieving certain goals, such as job training, mental health or substance abuse treatment, family counseling and accessing veterans benefits, as well as housing, food stamps and other necessities of life.
The veteran is not alone when facing these challenges. He or she is offered peer counseling by local veteran volunteers. Also assisting the veteran/defendant are the coordinated efforts of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, other government agencies and community providers.
If the judge determines the veteran has achieved the previously agreed-upon goals, the case will be disposed of favorably. If a veteran drops out of the program, he or she will face a trial on the original criminal charges.
The Buffalo court has inspired the creation of about 20 courts that offer treatment to veterans in New York. Each incorporates some, but not necessarily all, of the elements of the Buffalo model. They operate somewhat like drug treatment and mental health courts, which seek to address underlying problems that may have contributed to a defendant's alleged criminal behavior.
"New York should be at the forefront of offering troubled veterans a path back to productive lives in their communities," Lau-Kee said. "Expanding the use of veterans treatment courts is something we should do to honor our veterans for their service to our country."
For more information, see the 2012 report of the New York State Bar Association's special committee on veterans: nysba.org/veteransreport.
The 75,000-member New York State Bar Association is the largest voluntary state bar association in the nation. It was founded in 1876.