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These courts give wayward veterans a chance
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.
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.
A Separate Peace
Specialized courts for war veterans work wonders. But why stop at veterans?
The bigger issue with the veterans' court has been raised by some local chapters of the ACLU, which object to the creation of a unique legal class of criminals based on their status as veterans. Thus Lee Rowland of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada opposed the proposed state veterans court because it provided "an automatic free pass based on military status to certain criminal defense rights that others don't have."
Mark Silverstein, legal director of the Colorado ACLU, raised similar objections to the veterans court initiative there, explaining that the legal category of "veteran" is both too broad and too narrow, sweeping in both Vietnam and World War II veterans, who have very different experiences, while excluding nonveterans who also suffer from PTSD but aren't eligible for any special courts. He wondered, "Should the criminal justice system take into account PTSD when it arises from military service but disregard it when it stems from different but nevertheless horrific life experiences?" Nobody actually opposes veterans' courts, and it's difficult to speak out against them. But as Silverstein suggests, if we are finally doing away with "lock 'em up and throw away the key" justice for some classes of people with mental health problems and addictions, shouldn't we do so for everyone?
Speaking as a veteran myself, I thought one of the principals our troops fight for is the idea of "equal justice for all' : the principal that all men stand equal before the law with no special favors given for our social position and no additional penalties given for those who belong to lower social classes, unpopular minorities or causes.
Originally posted by MMPI2
yep. what's gonna happen is that somebody, maybe the ACLU, will lodge a complaint with a higher court of appeals or judicial review board to argue that it violates the equal protection clause as set forth in the fourteenth amendment.
if you think about it, it really sort of does, and arguments against this seem counterintuitive.