Bar News - June 15, 2016
Court News: New Hampshire’s Second Veterans Docket Begins in Manchester Court
By: Carol Robidoux
Diane Levesque, in black, speaks with veteran Steve Landry, in blue, the first person to participate in Manchester’s Veterans Behavioral Health Track Program through the 9th Circuit Court, Manchester, District Division.
Photo by Carol Robidoux
Judge Gregory Michael wasted no time getting started on the first day of the Veterans Behavioral Health Track program in Manchester on June 1. Waiting inside his courtroom at the 9th Circuit Court - District Division there was just one case, and it took less than 10 minutes for the judge to take care of the business at hand: accepting Army Air National Guard veteran Steve Landry into the new program.
Michael got the rundown first from Diane Levesque, an advocate for program participants through her work as justice outreach coordinator at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Manchester. Landry is Track II, Levesque informed the judge – for those with suspended or deferred criminal sentences. It is one of three tracks built into the system to manage cases, based on whether the charge against the defendant has been set aside by the court, the sentence has been suspended or deferred, as in Landry’s case; or if the defendant has been released on bail pending trial.
Landry faces “some challenging issues,” according to Levesque. He must sign a contract stating he will remain on good behavior and follow his treatment plan for the duration of the program, usually one year. Levesque said Landry was hoping to get into a treatment center the same day, although it’s getting harder to find placements. Worst case scenario, he would come back the following week to update Judge Michael on his progress.
If all goes as planned and he holds up his end, Landry will serve no jail time or pay fines. Ideally, he will get his life back.
Michael looked over Landry’s case paperwork, which included the signed contract. Everything was in order.
“This is not a free pass, or a get out of jail free card. I want to emphasize that,” Michael said before Landry arrived, addressing those who’d gathered to witness the program launch. “This is still a court program. It diverts the veteran into certain treatments that are available through Easter Seals and the VA. The point of it is to educate and assist these folks, and improve their quality of life as a result generally of service-connected issues, which can be significant in many cases.”
Among those who had come to observe the first session was attorney Kyle Robidas, who will be a liaison for the program, working from the NH Public Defender’s office.
Robidas had an opportunity to observe the state’s first Veterans Track program in Nashua, and he felt an undeniable pull toward it – he is a graduate of Norwich Military Academy, honorably discharged from the Air Force to attend law school.
“I think the program helps in two ways: First, it connects veterans with the treatment they need and it provides them assistance they may be lacking. And the second piece is that appearing in front of a judge every week, or sometimes every other week, provides supervision and accountability – much like what they experienced in the military, which often seems to help,” Robidas said.
The Veterans Behavioral Health Track was established in New Hampshire in 2012, part of the national push toward more diversion programs for the rising tide of veterans dealing with legal and/or mental health issues that result in legal matters. It’s meant to be restorative, much like drug and mental health courts, by reducing recidivism and helping individuals find alternative ways of coping.
For a percentage of returning veterans, the home front means facing addiction, untreated post-traumatic stress disorder or anger management problems. Service-related issues often lead them into trouble with the law. About 10 percent of New Hampshire’s prison population are military veterans – which mirrors the national average. It’s a statistic many find surprising, according to Capt. Maureen Tessier of the Manchester Police Department.
“Our officers are encountering veterans in crisis every day, where untreated behavioral health issues lead to recurring encounters with our traditional criminal justice system,” Tessier said.
The judge presiding over Landry’s case sees the new program as an important stepping stone for veterans who otherwise fall through the judicial system’s cracks. He will be working alongside Judge John Coughlin in the Manchester Circuit Court-based program.
“I’m a huge proponent of this. I believe it’s an important step in assisting those people who signed up and put their lives at stake for all of us. And it is also a responsible step in responding to the concerns that we all have over veterans who have served this country,” Michael said.
Levesque, a social worker with years of experience in private practice, has already seen how the program redirects those in crisis, changing their course for the better.
“The most important advice I have for anyone within the criminal justice system is to remember to ask the question,” says Levesque, referring to the statewide push to “Ask the Question,” an initiative of the Department of Health and Human Services. It’s is an awareness program meant to prompt providers and legal agents across all sectors of healthcare and criminal justice to begin every encounter by asking whether someone has served in the military.
“That’s where the healing begins,” she said.
Carol Robidoux is a Manchester-based freelance writer and is the editor and publisher of the hyperlocal news website, www.manchesterinklink.com.