Veterans' Treatment Courts “Wow” Congress


“One of the most moving and insightful panel discussions we have had.”
-Rep. Bob Filner


On Wednesday, September 16, leaders of the Veterans' Treatment Court movement gathered on Capitol Hill for a roundtable discussion with the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. The committee convened the roundtable to gain better understanding of the legal programs that have been established, or are being established, that assist our nation’s veterans who are struggling with their transition to civilian life.

“We should be proactive and not reactive,” said Judge Robert Russell, founder and presiding judge of the nation’s first Veterans' Treatment Court in Buffalo, NY. Judge Russell explained to the committee that the idea came from seeing increasingly high numbers of veterans appearing on city court dockets. He described how the Buffalo Veterans' Treatment Court helps veterans get the help they need to stabilize their lives by adding specific treatment, services and partnerships to the Drug Court model. To date, 115 out of 120 veterans have completed the program. None of the program’s 18 graduates has been re-arrested, said Judge Russell.

“You win my ‘wow’ award,” said Rep. Steve Buyer (R- IN), the committee’s ranking Republican, who added that Russell’s success at helping troubled veterans “really wows me.”

Judge Charles Romani, presiding judge of the Madison County Veterans' Treatment Court in Illinois, told the committee of similar success in his court. “In five months we have had no missed appointments and no arrests,” he said. “We have a duty to help our veterans. They are responding to our help.”

One of the services unique to Veterans' Treatment Courts is the addition of volunteer veteran mentors who work closely with participants. Buffalo Veterans' Treatment Court Mentor Coordinator Jack O’Conner explained that many veterans prefer to speak with other veterans. “Since our court launched we have added younger mentors who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as female mentors, because we have seen that our younger participants prefer to speak with someone they can identify with.”

West Huddleston, CEO of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, provided the committee with a national perspective. “The problems associated with the unique experience of combat require a unique solution. There is no justice intervention in this country as successful, cost effective and scientifically validated as the Drug Court model. Veterans' Treatment Courts build upon this proven success, maintaining the core infrastructure that makes Drug Courts so successful and adding key components of treatment and support exclusive to the needs of veterans.”

There are now ten Veterans' Treatment Courts around the country with dozens more in the planning stages. The panel agreed that in order for jurisdictions to have the opportunity to help veterans by establishing Veterans' Treatment Courts there must be support from Congress. Early this year the bipartisan SERV Act was introduced in both the House and Senate. If passed, the SERV Act would provide funding for communities with existing Drug Courts that serve veterans or wishing to establish new Veterans' Treatment Courts. “This critical legislation is key to providing resources necessary to expand Veterans' Treatment Courts throughout the country,” said Huddleston.

Veterans' Treatment Courts were praised by the committee. “I hope the committee will get behind this,” said Rep. John Boozman (R-AR), “If there is an answer to this problem, than [Veterans' Treatment Courts] are it.”

“These courts save money, but more importantly, they save lives,” said Chairman Filner. “I applaud the hard work and healing spirit of the experts here today. As veterans graduate from these programs, our grateful nation stands behind them and celebrates their bravery once again.”

Also providing expert testimony at the roundtable was:


Patrick W. Welch, Ph.D., Director, Erie County Veterans Service Agency, Buffalo, New York


Jennifer P. Stergion, Chair, Committee on Veterans and Service-Members Legal Issues, Buffalo, New York


Honorable Michael E. McCarthy, Judge, Civil Division, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania


William F. Feeley, Director, VA Medical Center, Buffalo, New York


George P. Basher, Director, NY State Division of Veterans' Affairs, Albany, New York

 

 

(From left) West Huddleston, Jack O'Conner, Rep. Bob Filner, The Honorable Robert Russell, The Honorable Charles Romani Jr., The Honorable Michael E. McCarthy, Jennifer P. Stergion

"We are poised to ensure that every veteran who needs it has the opportunity, not for incarceration, but for treatment and restoration," said West Huddleston.

 

"We are helping veterans sincerely get the help and assistance they need," said Judge Robert Russell.