As Americans, we owe a debt of gratitude to our military veterans. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is committed to doing everything we can to support the men and women who have served our country as they transition back to civilian life.
Many veterans struggle with this readjustment. Pennsylvania has the fourth highest population of veterans in this country, one million men and women, and their struggles affect all of our communities. Some veterans return home from service with invisible wounds, inhibiting their successful integration into their communities.
It is estimated that, of the more than 2.7 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 20 percent suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or major depression. Yet, only half of these veterans seek treatment. Others resort to self-medication with drugs and alcohol, which often leads to their involvement with the criminal justice system.
One-third of America’s homeless are veterans. On any given night, 40,000 veterans are on the streets. The majority suffer from substance abuse, mental illness, or related disorders. Veterans who are homeless have a higher prevalence of criminal justice system-involvement.
Sadly, 22 veterans commit suicide every day in the United States.
In 2008, Judge Robert Russell of Buffalo, New York created the nation’s first Veterans Court. There are now over 300 Veterans Courts in the United States, serving more than 13,000 veterans.
In Veterans Courts, eligible veteran defendants with substance dependency and/or mental illness are placed on a specialized criminal docket. After initial screening and assessment, these veterans are offered an opportunity to participate in this voluntary program, which involves judicially supervised compliance with a treatment plan developed by veteran health care professionals.
Veterans Courts emphasize a team-focused approach. These teams typically include a District Attorney, a Public Defender, a Probation Officer, and the VA, as well as Mentor Coordinators. Mentors are veterans who volunteer their time to support their fellow veterans as they navigate the court, treatment, and VA systems.
The Mentor component is one of the key ingredients to the success of our Veterans Courts. More volunteer mentors are needed in all of our Veterans Courts.
As veteran defendants progress through the program, compliance is monitored through regularly scheduled court hearings, during which participants may be sanctioned for non-compliance and rewarded for a job well done. At graduation, successful participants have become stable, employed and substance free, and continue to receive mental health care and counseling, as needed. Successful Veterans Courts boast a significantly reduced recidivism rate, 5-10 percent, and save countless tax dollars by keeping our veterans out of prison. Veterans Courts truly help our veterans find their way back home.
In 2009, Pennsylvania’s first Veterans Court was established in Lackawanna County by Judge Michael Barrasse. We now have 20 Veterans Courts, with more in formation, and 14 counties providing Magisterial District Court Diversionary programs for veterans. There are presently over 450 Pennsylvania veterans participating in these programs.
As the wife of a veteran, retired U.S. Army Reserve Colonel Steve Todd, I am honored to serve as the Supreme Court’s Liaison to Pennsylvania’s Veterans Courts.
There is nothing more gratifying than attending a Veterans Court graduation ceremony and seeing the transformation the program has inspired in a veteran’s life. I have seen the arresting police officer attend to congratulate the vet on getting his life back on track. Believe me, there is not a dry eye in the courtroom.
Babe Ruth once said, “You just can’t beat the person who never gives up,” and veterans participating in the Veterans Court program have not given up.
I cannot begin to know everything these veterans and their families have been through. But, I do know that they have served our country honorably; they have encountered tremendous difficulties; and they have overcome tough challenges. The fact that they have successfully completed the Veterans Court program speaks volumes.
Author, J. K. Rowling said, “Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
I believe it is never too late to rebuild a life.
To learn more about Pennsylvania’s Veterans Courts, visit www.pacourts.us and go to “Judicial Administration/Programs/Veterans Courts.”
And, to all of our Pennsylvania Veterans, thank you for your service.