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July 08, 2008

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John C

Something feels odd about this . . . I understand (and am sympathetic to) the notion that specialty courts might better address the real issues behind substance abuse or mental health for certain segments of the population, but something strikes me as a bit unfair about the notion that a defendant will be treated differently based on a past occupation (or service, if you will).

Assuming for the moment that is it preferable, from the standpoint of a defendant, to be in a "military court" than in an "insane" regular court, I see no readily apparent connection between past willingness to serve in the military and culpability for a given crime (or liklihood of more successful rehabilitation if exposed to the "military court" style of punishment and treatment). Has anyone articulated such a connection? What about those physically unable to serve in the military? Those individuals have no ability to even choose to serve (and thereby be eligible for the special court)? This smacks of being problematic from the standpoint of general equal protection principles (NOT, I stress, from the standpoint of EP doctrine, which does not, as far as I can see, have anything to do with this issue).

This seems rife with issues to me.

Dan Filler

A reader, Major William Collins, asked me to post this comment:

Gentlemen,
You both only have part of the story and at least one of you has no real understanding or appreciation for military service. A veterans court is not simply a "special court" to address someone’s past socio-economic background or preferential treatment for certain types of past employment. It is meant to address issues of fairness and equity but it is also addressing bottom line economic factors dealing with the cost of incarceration and most importantly a debt that is owned by this country to all those who have served their country in Uniform, especially in time of war.
Most of the issues these courts would address are arising from service connected injuries, illnesses and disabilities such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and the like. These conditions are a direct result of the veteran’s military service, but unfortunately many service members separating from service and many reservists returning to their civilian lives are doing so without these conditions being properly diagnosed by the military healthcare system. Once out, many vets find the VA healthcare system is broken as well. Timely and appropriate treatment is often difficult to get under the best of circumstances. This is where Justice McCaffery's comment about veterans "self medicating" is derived. We are not talking about a recreational user who happens to have some reserve service time back in the '80s or 90's with no outstanding service connected disabilities getting preferential treatment. These young men and woman were "broken" in the service of their country (many in Iraq and Afghanistan) so that you and I might enjoy the freedoms that we do while sleeping soundly in our warm beds. Society owes them a debt to make them whole again, to return them to their families in the same (if not better) physical and mental condition they were in when they entered the service. More responsive military and VA healthcare are the desired changes needed to elevate the problem, but the young men and women we are talking about are water over the dam in that regard, we have failed them. The veterans court is a way to take these men and women who are America's Next Greatest Generation and get them on their feet (with proper health care) and contributing once again to society without the stigma of a criminal conviction on their permanent record to impede their future success.
From a practical point of view our prison systems are broken too. The cost of incarceration continues to increase but the ability of the system to truly rehabilitate (if it was even ever there) continues to decrease. We can't imprison everyone who is convicted and those that we do run the risk of becoming repeat offenders as a result of the associations they made while in the prison system. So given this Solomon-esq dilemma how are you going to split the baby? Justice McCaffery and judge Russell's approach is that a contrite veteran is the best risk and investment for this alternative sentencing. These men and woman have already demonstrated a high degree of character and discipline just to be screened and selected by recruiters. They then had to make it through boot camp showing even more character, discipline and dedication. They then went on to serve in the military, many now doing so in hostile combat environments (and many for multiple tours of duty) and then are honorably discharged with many basic skills applicable to a broad range of employers. They also graduate into an alumni of other veterans, many who will go out of their way to hire veterans. Given the choice of who is the better risk for completing the required treatment program, re-engaging with society and quickly becoming productive, tax paying members of society, the veterans are a very sound risk.
The military mind set and culture also make this program different. Judge Russell in Buffalo, NY requires his veteran accused/defendants to work with a sponsor from the veteran community as well as getting all court ordered treatment for substance abuse, anger management, etc…. These sponsors come from all variety of Veterans Service Organizations such as the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), the Meritorious Order of the Purple Heart (MOPH), and many, many others; even some Reserve and Guard unit members have volunteered their personal time to serve as sponsors. As service members we hold ourselves to higher standards and take pride in this. We expect former service member to continue to live the core values they lived by while on active duty. These sponsors are a mix of den mother, cheer leader, Dr. Phil and yes, even a little drill sergeant to put these troubled vets in check and help them to dig down and find those core values they lost touch with after their enlistment.
Given all this, a veterans court in Pennsylvania would not only benefit the Commonwealth and its veterans, it would be among the first in the country to do so as a statewide program making Pennsylvania a leader in what will be a fast growing and Federally encouraged and supported trend in the very near future.

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