Bar News - May 21, 2014|
Court News: Veterans Track Created in Nashua Mental Health Court
By: Kristen Senz
A grassroots effort to establish a dedicated docket for military veterans accused of crimes is taking shape in Nashua.
Attorneys Working to Help VeteransLarry Vogelman, immediate past president of the NH Bar Association, made addressing the unique challenges veterans in the court system face one of his top priorities during his term in office.
Dozens of attorneys answered Vogelman’s call to work together on creating programming that would educate attorneys and judges on issues related to justice-involved veterans and would assist military veterans with both civil and criminal cases.
In conjunction with the NH Foreclosure Relief Project, the team held two foreclosure clinics at the VA Medical Center in Manchester. Other legal clinics held there brought volunteer lawyers in to help veterans with Social Security and family law cases. The NHBA also held a Continuing Legal Education program in January titled Understanding the Returning Veteran, which is still available as an online seminar. Vogelman continues to work on finding funding for an ongoing veterans’ legal services program, possibly in conjunction with the NHBA Pro Bono Referral Program.
“Given my work in criminal defense and civil rights, and working with a lot of veterans that got caught in the system, I just think it’s a real need,” Vogelman said recently. “A lot of people who had never been involved in bar association activities before, and who weren’t already in the Pro Bono program, volunteered to get involved.”
NH Superior Court Chief Justice Tina Nadeau said more work needs to be done to educate judges about issues related to veterans in the justice system, as well as the treatment options that are available to them. Even without a dedicated court docket for veterans, judges could be crafting criminal sentences for veterans that take into account their mental health needs and the treatment options available through the VA, she said.
Vogelman said he thinks the formation of a veterans’ behavioral health track will likely raise awareness and improve outcomes for vets in New Hampshire. He said he plans to continue to pursue ways to improve access to justice and legal representation for veterans.
The pilot project in the 9th Circuit Court – District Division in Nashua will consolidate veteran-involved criminal cases from Nashua, Hudson and Hollis under the purview of Circuit Court Judge James Leary. Court officials hope the pilot, if successful, becomes a model for similar efforts throughout the state.
Many of the military veterans who end up in New Hampshire criminal courts bring with them a unique set of behavioral health challenges, which can include Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, substance abuse and anger management issues. Because these problems are common among veterans, the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health system has developed programs and services to address them, which can lead to court-ordered treatment being fast-tracked.
“It is a completely different service system than everyone else has,” Judge Leary said. “The range of services is tremendous, compared to the average Joe who gets arrested in Nashua... I expect it’s going to be a lot easier, because we know when we sentence someone into treatment, we know that treatment is going to be available.”
The “average Joe” who gets arrested in Nashua, without private health insurance, usually has to wait weeks or months for a bed in a residential mental health or substance abuse treatment center, or for a slot to open up in another court-ordered treatment program.
The veterans behavioral health track in the Nashua court will rely on the infrastructure and supports available through the existing mental health court program, which was established in Nashua in 2006 and is known as Community Connections. By coordinating with the VA Medical Center in Manchester, the court can monitor treatment options, progress and compliance.
Diane Levesque, who heads up the Veterans Justice Outreach program at the VA Medical Center in Manchester, will act as a liaison with the court, ensuring compliance with court-ordered treatment plans and monitoring offenders’ progress. Levesque, who provides support to pretrial inmates throughout southern New Hampshire and makes recommendations to the court about treatment, has about 90 open cases at any given time. She says having a dedicated docket for justice-involved veterans in the Nashua area will make her job a little easier.
“I won’t have to run to the three different courts,” she said. “Everything will be located in the one court on the same day at the same time.”
The VA program Levesque coordinates was created about two years ago. Since then, she has helped dozens of veterans turn their lives around. One Vietnam-era veteran she encountered at a local jail had been charged with assault and was struggling with anger management issues and with paying for the anger management classes the court ordered him to take. He was homeless, unemployed and unaware that he qualified for medical and mental health services through the VA.
“At this point, he is housed, employed, and involved in treatment, and that’s one of numerous examples,” Levesque said. “Forced treatment is treatment. It opens the door to an entirely new life.”
Referrals to the veterans’ behavioral health track can come from police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, jails, or the court. Veterans of all wars and even veterans who aren’t eligible for VA services can have their criminal cases referred to the specialized veterans docket in Nashua. Levesque would still provide case management services for those defendants who don’t qualify for VA services, but any court-ordered treatment would be provided by civilian agencies.
Jo Moncher, chief of the military bureau at the NH Department of Health and Human Services, said the inclusiveness of the Nashua pilot project is part of what sets it apart from the roughly 160 veterans’ courts in other states, many of which were created by statute and are open only to veterans who qualify for VA services.
NH Superior Court Chief Justice Tina Nadeau, a staunch supporter of alternative sentencing programs, has been working with Leary, Moncher and others on the veterans’ track project. She said the team believes the court can address the special needs of veterans through existing court programs, without additional resources.
“I think for bigger states and bigger counties, it might make sense to have a separate court, but I just don’t think we have the administrative ability to have a mental health court, a drug court and a veterans court,” Nadeau said.
About 10 percent of inmates at NH State Prison are veterans, Moncher said. That proportion closely mirrors the percentage of veterans in the overall state population, which is about 11 percent. “We’ve identified that there is a need, and that this is something we can do and we should do in our state,” she said.
Currently, there is no funding for the veterans behavioral health track initiative in Nashua. But the group working on the project has been creative in its problem-solving, and many people, including dozens of attorneys (see sidebar), have expressed a desire to help make the court system more responsive to the special needs of veterans.
“We have zero funding,” Moncher said. “We’re doing this in the good, old fashioned New Hampshire way, with zero funds attached to it.”
The veterans’ behavioral health track at the district court in Nashua is expected to begin accepting case referrals within the next few weeks.