March 10, 2009

If these veterans courts are anywhere near as effective as the drug courts (which produce much better results than the regular court system), this is good news.

But this progam will have to be balanced with legitimate legal questions. The ACLU has opposed it in Nevada, saying it creates a separate class of people charged with crimes who get different treatment because they're veterans:

Reporting from Tulsa, Okla. -- U.S. military veterans from three decades pass through Judge Sarah Smith's courtroom here, reporting on their battles with drug addiction, alcoholism and despair. Those who find jobs and stabilize their lives are rewarded with candy bars and applause. Those who backslide go to jail.

Smith radiates an air of maternal care from the bench. As the veterans come before her, she softly asks: "How are you doing? Do you need anything?" But if a veteran fails random drug tests, she doesn't flinch at invoking his sentence. She keeps a drill sergeant's cap in her office.

Her court is part of a new approach in the criminal justice system: specialized courts for veterans who have broken the law. Judges have been spurred by a wave of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, battling post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries and stumbling into trouble with the law. But advocates of the courts say they also address a problem as old as combat itself.

"Some families give their sons or daughters to service for their country, and they're perfectly good kids. And they come back from war and just disintegrate before our eyes," said Robert Alvarez, a counselor at Ft. Carson in Colorado who is advocating for a veterans court in the surrounding county. "Is it fair to put these kids in prison because they served and got injured?"

The few veterans courts in the nation are modeled on drug courts that allow defendants to avoid prison in exchange for strict monitoring. Most are only a couple of months old, and it is difficult to track their effectiveness, but the results from the first court, which opened in Buffalo, N.Y., in January 2008, are striking.

Of the more than 100 veterans who have passed through, only two had to be returned to the traditional criminal court system because they could not shake narcotics or criminal behavior, said Judge Robert Russell. That is a far lower rate of recidivism than in drug courts.

They're looking at adding this program in Chicago, Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Nevada and Eau Claire, WI. It's already operating in Tulsa.

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