Veterans courts in Pennsylvania dubbed remedy for recidivism
HARRISBURG — Concerned that a defendant in mental health treatment court was not focused on his recovery, Buffalo City Court Judge Robert T. Russell noticed in the man’s file that he was a Vietnam War veteran.
“He never looked at me directly,” Russell said. “His posture was slumped.”
Russell solicited the help of two officials, also Vietnam vets, who talked to the man outside the courtroom. When Russell called the case again, the veteran stood before him at “parade rest” and stated, “Judge, I am going to try harder,” he recalled.
The first veterans court in the nation began about a year later in Buffalo, N.Y., in January 2008. The positive results of having vets counsel other veterans who have problems with alcohol, drugs or post-traumatic stress disorder was beyond what Russell ever envisioned, he said.
Only about 10 percent of defendants in his program return to court, according to figures his office supplied.
Since that first court, Pennsylvania has “emerged as a real national leader” among 37 states with such programs, said Chris Deutsch, a spokesman for Justice for Vets in Alexandria, Va. There are 256 programs nationwide that help 13,000 vets.
The first veterans court in Pennsylvania was established in Lackawanna County in 2009.
Veterans court produces much lower recidivism rates than most other programs, Deutsch said. He had no national data but suspects Buffalo, as the longest-running program, offers a glimpse at what vets helping other vets in specialized treatment can do. Such programs are alternatives to prison or parole.
In Pennsylvania, “a lot of the success has come from the Supreme Court, which has pushed for programs statewide,” Deutsch said. It’s a growing trend among the states, with a 28 percent increase in veterans courts from 2013 to 2014.
Pennsylvania’s effort is led by Justice Debra Todd, who was asked by Chief Justice Thomas Saylor to head the court’s promotion and support for veterans courts upon the retirement of former Justice Seamus McCaffery, an ex-Marine who was passionate about veterans courts.
McCaffery retired last year after his suspension from the court tied to pornographic emails sent from his personal email account to the attorney general’s office.
In a recent interview, Todd, a Democrat from Cranberry, said even though she is not a veteran, she brings passion to the effort because her husband, Steve, is a retired Army colonel who served in Operation Desert Storm.
Steve Todd is the mentor coordinator for the veterans court in Butler County, one of about 18 courts in the state.
“The veterans court is more rigorous than other programs,” he said. People accused of violent crimes, such as murder and serious bodily injury, are not admitted. District attorneys “are the gatekeepers. They have the right to say ‘yay’ or ‘nay,’ ” he said.
Pennsylvania has 10 diversionary programs in magisterial districts, according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
Graduation ceremonies for vets who complete court requirements “are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s a celebration of a veteran’s life,” Debra Todd told the Tribune-Review.
There’s a military flavor to the proceedings, her husband said: “They salute the judge.”
After initial screening, veterans with dependency or mental health issues are placed on a special docket; sentencing typically is deferred.
It’s a voluntary program, judicially supervised, with support from fellow veterans and links to Department of Veterans Affairs services.
One in 5 veterans has symptoms of a mental health disorder or cognitive impairment; and 1 in 6 who served in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom suffer from substance abuse, according to Justice for Vets.
Among all U.S. adults, 18.5 percent had some type of mental illness in 2013, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
An estimated 8.6 percent of Americans 12 or older needed treatment in 2013 for alcohol or drug abuse, according to the latest figures available from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
“The Supreme Court is committed to doing everything we can to support the men and women who have served our country as they transition back to civilian life,” Todd said.
Veterans can be some of the harshest critics of special courts for veterans, the Trib reported in 2013, and many of those entering the programs did not serve in war zones. Some vets believe veterans should meet a higher standard of civilian conduct.
There’s some criticism from vets, Steve Todd said, but he doesn’t believe that’s the view of a majority.
As for combat experience, the programs generally hold that “everybody deserves it who served,” he said. “We owe them a debt of gratitude. We’re not giving them a free pass.”
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media’s state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or [email protected].