A Separate Peace

By Lithwick, Dahlia | Newsweek, February 22, 2010 | Go to article overview

A Separate Peace


Lithwick, Dahlia, Newsweek


Byline: Dahlia Lithwick

Why veterans deserve special courts.

The problem is hardly a new one, but we need only watch The Hurt Locker to refresh our collective memory: veterans return from war, having seen and survived unspeakable things, then try to adjust to civilian life with inadequate resources and support. Depending on the study you read, between 20 and 50 percent of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffer from posttraumatic stress and other mental disorders--and half don't seek mental-health care. Those who do don't always receive the kind of care they need. The results of these systemic failures are increased instances of rape, assault, addiction, and other criminal acts that tangle up veterans in the criminal courts. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that veterans account for 10 percent of the people with criminal records.

The first "veterans' court" was launched in Buffalo, N.Y., in January 2008 by Judge Robert Russell. His program was based on the various "problem solving" tribunals around the country, ranging from specialized drug courts to mental-health and domestic-violence courts. Drug courts, for instance, integrate treatment with justice-system case management, and closely supervise and monitor participants. Studies show they have decreased recidivism rates as well as the cost of incarceration. In recent testimony before the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, Russell said his program teams veterans guilty of nonviolent felony or misdemeanor offenses with volunteer veteran mentors, requiring them to adhere to a strict schedule of rehabilitation programs and court appearances. One hundred and twenty veterans are enrolled in the Buffalo program; 90 percent of participants have successfully completed the program, and the recidivism rate is zero.

Since the Buffalo experiment was launched, 22 other cities and counties have created their own veterans' courts. The Senate is looking at legislation introduced by John Kerry and Lisa Murkowski to fund more veterans' courts for nonviolent offenders. Whether these will serve violent offenders as well is already a difficult issue for legislators and judges. The Buffalo court handles chiefly nonviolent offenses. But that may not solve the problems in Colorado Springs, Colo., where there have been 15 former GIs arrested in connection with a dozen murders over the past five years. …

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