Vets receive 'special court' in NY | MassCops

Vets receive 'special court' in NY

Discussion in 'Military News' started by kwflatbed, Jul 8, 2008.

  1. kwflatbed

    kwflatbed MassCops Angel Staff Member

    By Carolyn Thompson
    The Associated Press

    BUFFALO, N.Y. — The first clue that the Tuesday afternoon session in Part 4 of Buffalo City Court is not like other criminal proceedings comes just before it starts.
    Judge Robert Russell steps down from his bench and from the aloofness of his black robe. He walks into the gallery where men and women accused of stealing, drug offenses and other non-violent felonies and misdemeanors fidget in plastic chairs.
    "Good afternoon," he says, smiling, and talks for a minute about the session ahead.
    With the welcoming tone set, Russell heads back behind the bench, where he will mete out justice with a disarming mix of small talk and life-altering advice.
    While the defendants in this court have been arrested on charges that could mean potential prison time and damaging criminal records, they have another important trait in common: All have served their country in the military.
    That combination has landed them here, in veterans treatment court, the first of its kind in the country.
    Russell is the evenhanded quarterback of a courtroom team of veterans advocates and volunteers determined to make this brush with the criminal justice system these veterans' last.
    "They look to the right or to the left, they're sitting there with another vet," Russell said, "and it's a more calming, therapeutic environment. Rather than them being of the belief that `people don't really understand me,' or `they don't know what it's like' - well, it's a room full of folks who do."
    If the veterans adhere to a demanding 1- to 2-year regimen of weekly to monthly court appearances, drug testing and counseling for any combination of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, substance abuse or anger management, they could see their charges dismissed, or at least stay out of jail.
    After counting 300 veterans in the local courts last year, the judge tailor-made the treatment court to address not only vets' crimes but their unique mental health issues.
    Charles Lewis, who stood before Russell at a recent session, may be exactly the kind of defendant the judge had in mind. The 25-year-old acknowledged walking out in frustration from his last counseling session.
    "We all know that you're a good person who at times has done some inappropriate things," Russell told him. "It's time to get past the nonsense, don't you think?"
    Lewis nodded in agreement. A jet mechanic four years into what he thought would be a 20-year Navy career, he severely injured his leg on the flight deck of the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in 2004 and was discharged.
    Forced to rethink his future before his 22nd birthday, he returned to Buffalo, where he found work as a laborer and in the concrete business before starting his own concrete company. After taking on more work than he could handle, Lewis said he found himself charged with petit larceny in December for keeping a $3,000 deposit from a customer for a job that never got done. A daily habit of prescription pain pills for the plates and pins in his leg compounded the problems of someone who had known only the rigidity of the military from the time he was 18.
    "It was hard to adjust," Lewis said later at his home in Buffalo's north end. "I was used to that structure. That whole time (in the Navy) I was doing what I was supposed to do, then I got out and it was just not working."
    Admittedly stubborn - he walked out of counseling because he got tired of hearing people complain - the 25-year-old father of four is only now addressing anxiety and attention disorders linked to his wartime service and the toll it took on his leg and hearing. A 30-day stay in rehab to get off prescription drugs began his path through veterans treatment court.
    "I'm doing really good now," he said.
    Russell believes the need for courts like his will only grow, pointing to the 1.6 million troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has been highly praised by the VA and other veterans organizations.
    "What I appreciate about this is this isn't letting people off for what they do, it's just getting them the care that they need," said Patrick Campbell, legislative director for Iraq Veterans of America.
    The group has been working with Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, on legislation that would provide grants for the creation of veterans treatment courts like the one in Buffalo.
    "A lot of veterans, when they come home, find the transition difficult and we all turn to different things to get through those times," said Campbell, who served in Iraq in 2004-05. "If we're not lucky enough to have a strong family social network to hold us together in those difficult times, people turn to drugs, turn to alcohol.
    "All of a sudden they find themselves in a position where, instead of being the outstanding patriot who's always been the person everyone looks to, they find themselves on the other end of the law," Campbell said. "This is going to get service members back to serving their country again."
    Buffalo has other courts that take a treatment approach, and they have saved taxpayers money by producing lower rates of repeat offending than other courts, said Hank Pirowski, the vets court's project director.
    "For our Buffalo drug treatment court, our recidivism rate for four years out from graduation is about 16 percent. For graduates from mental health treatment court, it's about 4 percent," Pirowski said. He and Russell are confident the veterans court, which began in January, will produce results in the same range.
    Although the judge is not a veteran, he noticed a bond between vet defendants and Pirowski, who served in Vietnam - and so he built a mentor program into this court. Twenty mentors take turns sitting in on the court sessions and meet individually with defendants to help them keep up with appointments and benefits applications, or just to talk.
    "It's that battle buddy mentality, that teamwork. Who do you want in your foxhole? It's going to be another veteran," said Pirowski, whose stage-whispered "good job" and handshakes are a reassuring presence.
    Mentor Jason Jaskula's best friend, Staff Sgt. Christopher Dill, was killed while the two were in Iraq in 2005, and Jaskula had the wrenching duty of accompanying the 32-year-old Buffalo firefighter's body home. Jaskula is convinced the numbers of troops returning with PTSD - 40,000 since 2003, by the Department of Defense's count - are underestimated.
    "I can see for a younger kid just getting out, they don't know how to deal with it," he said. The 37-year-old is a detective with the Department of Veterans Affairs police but would rather help fellow service members get past their problems than put them in jail.
    "If you've done something that deserves to be punished, by all means you're getting punished. This isn't a get-out-of-jail-free card," Jaskula said. "But if you're hitting some stumbling blocks, I'd rather help you out.
    "With mentors," he said, "it's not just some bureaucrat talking to you. I'm saying, `Listen, this is what I've done. These are the potholes that I hit and the dead-ends that I hit so we're going to go and take this route.'"
    Jaskula mentored a father of three who was arrested for selling marijuana to supplement his fast-food restaurant wages after returning from Iraq.
    "He's going from making money and having an important role to coming back to a society that's saying, `Go flip burgers for minimum wage and if you can't make it, oh well,'" Jaskula said.
    Also in the courtroom is Donna Leigh, a substance abuse treatment specialist from the Department of Veterans Affairs. A laptop gives her direct access to defendants' records, allowing her to instantly make and track appointments and link veterans with the government benefits and services they often don't know about.
    On the bench, Russell is the ever-encouraging father figure.
    One defendant said he was nervous about enrolling in college because he'd never been much of a student.
    "Just give yourself an opportunity," the judge replied. "This might be different for you now... We're going to help you."
    Public defender Danielle Maichle stood nearby, explaining at the outset: "This is a courtroom where I'm your attorney but I'm not going to do all the talking. You're going to be speaking one-on-one with the judge in every session."
    The approach cultivates a sense of trust and understanding, said Guy LaPenna, a 40-year-old veteran with a history of stealing and drug violations. The high-stress life of Navy duty aggravated problems he had before, but he said he left the service an angry alcoholic battling mental health issues.
    Russell is "appreciative that we're working so hard," said LaPenna, a high-energy personal trainer. He is following the veterans court program to see a petit larceny charge dismissed, "but the real reward is getting my life back and functioning as a member of society, a productive member of society," he said.
    Jack O'Connor, a Vietnam veteran who is on the advisory board of Buffalo's VA hospital, has no problem finding veteran mentors for the sessions.
    "We didn't have it when we got out. We were kind of spit on," O'Connor said. "I think these guys know that they don't want that to happen to this group.
    "I got arrested when I got out. A lot of us did," he said. "I wish we had a Judge Russell to listen."

    [​IMG]Wire Service
     
  2. 5-0

    5-0 Guest

    Kudos to this judge. It's great to see the court looking at the totality of circumstance for these HEROES, despite the challenges they are facing in their personal lives.
     
  3. Harley387

    Harley387 MassCops Member

    I agree with what this judge is doing, but this also opens up doors for aguments. What about Police Officers? There's no question that a large percentage of the public view us in a negative light. Shouldn't we be afforded the same type of court situation? There are many other groups who would argue that they too deserve to be tried by what they percieve as "peers". I mean no disrespect to veterans, but does anyone else see the potential issues with this?
     
  4. Delta784

    Delta784 Guest

    A LOT more veterans end up in court as defendants than do police officers, and PTSD is a lot more common with vets than cops.

    Junkies have their own "drug court", why not veterans?
     
  5. 5-0

    5-0 Guest

    There are a whole host of problems that veterans have to contend with, including the double whammy of Mental Illness/Alcoholism that is difficult to untangle. There is no reason that they cannot aim the Liberal Service Cannon at a group of people who actually DESERVE it. I come from a teaching/human services background, so I think this is an awesome program. They gave everything for our country, the least we can do is try to pull them out of the mess they jumped in for us.
     
  6. Harley387

    Harley387 MassCops Member

    Excellent points Delta and 5-0. I guess I didn't see it from that perspective.....which is why I brought it up. Thanks for the insight.
     

Share This Page

Search tags for this page

charles lewis larceny buffalo veterans

,

guy lapenna va