Bar News - January 18, 2017
Criminal Law: Veterans Track Aims to Help Justice-Involved Veterans
By: Luke Webster
For every 100 inmates serving sentences in United States correctional facilities, there are nine military veterans in the cell block. That means in New Hampshire, on any given day, there are nearly 300 veterans housed in the state’s correctional system. But the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that veteran incarceration rates are dropping. The implementation of Veteran Treatment Court models, a treatment plan alternative to incarceration, is one factor that may have contributed to this decline.
Since 2001, about 2.5 million American military personnel served in Iraq, Afghanistan, or both. Nearly 20 percent of military service members who have returned home report symptoms of combat stress injuries, including: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), major depression, and anxiety, yet only slightly more than half have sought treatment. These hidden wounds, related substance abuse issues and difficulties adapting to non-threat environments all can lead to involvement in the criminal justice system.
The New Hampshire Judicial Branch has recently acknowledged that veteran defendants are unique and require support applied through a structured criminal justice experience to meet rehabilitative objectives. Since 2014, Veterans Behavioral Health Tracks were initiated in Nashua and Manchester Circuit Courts, and other programs continue to develop in Coos, Grafton and Rockingham counties. The purpose of this model is to provide an effective and meaningful alternative to the traditional criminal justice system for justice-involved veterans and service members. The objective is to promote intervention, education, treatment, and recovery to improve the quality of the veteran’s or service member’s life, while reducing recidivism and improving community safety.
Veterans apply for admission into the program as part of the disposition of a criminal or motor vehicle matter. A court liaison determines their eligibility, and sometimes requests additional evaluations. Once accepted into the program, a veteran signs a treatment plan tailored to meet their unique needs. Failure to abide by the treatment plan results in case referral back to the standard court process.
The state’s first Veterans Behavioral Health Track Program was guided by Judge James Leary in Nashua. There are now 10 such programs in New Hampshire. Building on the success of the Veterans Behavioral Health Track in Nashua, a second program was initiated in the Manchester Circuit Court. Judge Gregory E. Michael and Judge John J. Coughlin serve as lead judges for the project.
Judge Michael, a retired Air Force trial judge shared that, “I see veterans that have lost their way in my courtroom every day. The Veterans Behavioral Health Track provides an interdisciplinary team that can exercise discretion and employ a more effective and structured intervention that links veterans and service members to the programs, benefits, and services that they deserve and need.” He noted that a successful program taps into the unique experience of military and veteran culture and uses this to the benefit of the veteran. In Judge Michael’s experience, veterans respond favorably to a structured court environment and participation in behavioral health and substance abuse treatment programs.
One serial justice-involved veteran, speaking anonymously, shared that he had an opiate addiction and was receiving increasingly harsh sanctions in court. He remembers the hopelessness that he felt: “I was so far in the hole. I started thinking, ‘How can I get my life back together because the cards are so stacked against me?’ It’s easy to just keep getting high. I started to feel that people see me as a criminal already and that’s how the court sees me, too. What’s the deterrent to commit crimes?”
Following engagement with the Veterans Behavioral Health Track, this same veteran initiated Suboxone treatment, mental health counseling and was connected to stable housing. He is currently maintaining sobriety, safe housing, and has paid back all legal fines dismissing his pending court cases. This veteran now has a goal of returning to school and, as he explains it, “This helped break the cycle that I was in and helped me get back on the right track, so now I can have a life.”
In addition to the Veteran Courts in Nashua and Manchester, Grafton County is supporting veterans with a Veterans Justice Outreach Worker that coordinates with Mental Health Courts in Littleton, Plymouth and Lebanon. Rockingham County is also expected to launch a Veterans Behavioral Health Track in the coming weeks. This means six New Hampshire veterans court models will be operational in 2017, offering a range of possibilities for treatment and geographical proximity to supports.
As the New Hampshire Judicial Branch recognizes this critical need to support veterans and service members, Larry Vogelman expects to see more of these same success stories. Vogelman served as NH Bar Association president from 2012 to 2013, and conceived the veterans legal project, Legal Boots on the Ground. Vogelman says we owe every veteran not just our appreciation and thanks, but thoughtful programming within the criminal justice system, because a lot of veterans find themselves in court.
He explains further that, “For a veteran struggling with PTSD or other mental health issue, jail is far from a therapeutic environment. Treatment for mental health symptoms usually involves stepping away, rather than into a threatening atmosphere. Ultimately, we owe veterans a different level of treatment and the same level of commitment that they gave to their country.”
Jo Moncher, the Bureau Chief for Community Based Military programs at the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, praised the program as an opportunity for justice-involved veterans to meet their obligations to themselves, the court, and their community. “When law enforcement, attorneys, and judges ask the right questions and identify the path that led to the courtroom, veterans and service members can receive the most appropriate treatment to make sure they don’t return,” she explains.
Cpt. Luke Webster
Cpt. Luke Webster is an Army Judge Advocate General currently serving in the National Guard Trial Defense Service and providing conflict-free legal services to soldiers facing adverse criminal or administrative actions at no cost to soldiers.