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Legislation expanding access to veterans treatment courts

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Tue, Mar 30th 2021 05:35 pm

New legislation (S.1957-A/A.5719-A) provides historic expansion of lifechanging veterans courts

On Monday night, landmarks around the state lit in red, green and yellow – colors of Vietnam service ribbon – to honor war veterans

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday announced he signed legislation (S.1957-A/A.5719-A) expanding access to veterans treatment courts across New York, allowing qualifying justice-involved veterans in counties that lack a veterans treatment court to have their cases transferred into an existing veterans treatment court in a neighboring county. The governor highlighted the need for this expansion in his 2021 State of the State agenda.

Cuomo also announced that, on Monday, New York took additional actions to honor Vietnam War Veterans Day, including a virtual forum hosted by the New York State Division of Veterans' Services honoring the service and sacrifice of Native American Vietnam War veterans and the illumination of landmarks in the colors of the Vietnam service ribbon.

"Veterans have made enormous sacrifices for this country abroad and, unfortunately, often face significant challenges upon returning home. New York state is redoubling our support for the brave men and women who have served America in uniform," Cuomo said. "This legislation will make it easier to help veterans in the criminal justice system connect with much-needed support services regardless of county. We've also taken action to commemorate the sacrifices veterans made in Vietnam and honor the important contributions of Native American servicemembers."

Expanding Access to Veterans Treatment Courts

On March 29, Cuomo signed S.1957-A/A.5719-A into law. The legislation closes existing justice gaps for veterans in the criminal justice system who meet eligibility criteria for the life-changing services of a veterans treatment court, but who have been charged in a county that does not have a veterans treatment court. The law also authorizes the chief administrator of the courts to establish additional veterans treatment courts around the state.

Under the new law, qualifying justice-involved veterans who are charged with certain criminal offenses – excluding domestic violence matters – in a county without a veterans treatment court will be able to request that their cases be transferred to a veterans treatment court in a neighboring county. This process will require the consent of both the district attorney for the county in which the charges were initially brought as well as the district attorney for the county into which the case will be transferred.

Veterans treatment courts allow veterans struggling with mental illness or substance use who are charged with crimes to receive treatment instead of punishment. New York is home to the first veterans treatment court in the country, established in Buffalo in 2008 after the Hon. Robert Russell observed a Vietnam War veteran was struggling in the mental health court over which he presided. This ultimately led Russell to recognize the value of connecting justice-involved veterans with their fellow veterans on their challenging rehabilitative journeys.

The first veterans who volunteered to serve as peer mentors in Russell's brand-new veterans-focused specialized court in 2008 were all Vietnam War veterans.

Russell said, "Thank you and the team at the New York State Health Foundation for your support of veterans treatment courts and the veterans treatment court transfer legislation. The veterans of our state have made tremendous sacrifices for our freedom. This legislation affords veterans seen in our justice system the opportunity to participate, irrespective of where that veteran may reside, into a veterans treatment court."

Today, more than 400 veterans treatment courts have been established across the U.S., following the same fundamental framework Russell developed in Buffalo. More than 30 of these courts exist throughout New York, but access to them has long been uneven because they have not been established in every county. The bill signed by Cuomo ensures more eligible veterans are afforded access to these courts.

Landmarks Illuminated in Red, Green & Yellow

Iconic landmarks across the state were illuminated on the night of March 29 in the colors of red, green and yellow, the colors of the Vietnam service ribbon earned by the American service members who served on the ground in Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, or in the contiguous waters or airspace of these areas, during the Vietnam War.

Landmarks lit in commemoration of Vietnam Veterans Day included One World Trade Center, the Albany International Airport Gateway, the Kosciuszko Bridge, the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge, the H. Carl McCall SUNY Building, the Alfred E. Smith State Office Building, the State Education Building, State Fairgrounds-Expo Center, Grand Central Terminal-Pershing Square Viaduct and Niagara Falls.

An estimated 226,045 Vietnam War-era veterans live in New York today, comprising the largest population group of veterans from any era of military service to call the Empire State their home. Of the names listed on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., 4,119 are those of New Yorkers who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of this nation and the values for which it stands.

New York State Division of Veterans' Services Executive Deputy Director Joel Evans said, "Too often, our veterans did not receive the welcome home that they deserved when they returned from their military service. It was a privilege to recognize them on Vietnam War Veterans Day, just as our division honors and serves them every day. This year, it was also a special pleasure to celebrate and commemorate the service of Vietnam War Veterans from New York's tribal nations, thanking these Native American veterans for their courage and their commitment."

Virtual Forum

On Monday, the New York State Division of Veterans' Services hosted an online program on the afternoon of Vietnam War Veterans Day honoring the service and sacrifice of New York's Native American veterans who served during the Vietnam War era. Veterans from the Mohawk Nation in the North Country, the Oneida Nation in Central New York, the Seneca Nation in Western New York, and the Shinnecock Nation on Long Island took part in this ceremony, celebrating the vast tradition of service in the U.S. military among these tribal nations.

Native Americans serve in the U.S. Armed Forces at five times the national average. Approximately 82,000 Native Americans – or one in every four who were eligible – served on active duty during the Vietnam War Era, with 42,000 Native Americans serving in combat.

Agnes Jacobs, tribal sub-chief of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Nation, said, "Since time immemorial, Akwesasne Mohawks have participated in all branches of the United States Armed Forces. As we have seen in recent years, with the presentation of congressional medals for our code talkers our Mohawks take immense pride to serve. Unfortunately, not all returned from the same way as they left – some made the ultimate sacrifice and never came home. Finally today is an opportunity for all of us to share the respect, honor and gratitude for our men and women for their military service. Congratulations and 'Niawenkowa/thank you.' "

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