By Kathie Ragsdale
Judge James H. Leary likes to tell the story of a young veteran who appeared before him on a drug possession charge about three years ago.
“He was this big, strapping, very handsome Marine, the picture boy for the Marine Corps,” recalls Leary, now a senior active status judge with the 9th Circuit Court in Nashua.
“I bring him up to the front of the courtroom and we’re talking and I say, ‘What’s going on?’ and he keeps his head down. Most of them look you in the eye. “I said, ‘Is there something wrong?’ and he said, ‘Yea.’”
“I asked him what was wrong and he started crying and he said, ‘I don’t know who I am anymore.’”
The young Marine, Leary says, was exactly the sort of defendant who stood to benefit from something called the Veterans Behavioral Health Track, or Veterans Track – a program that allows veterans suffering from service-related issues like PTSD or substance abuse to avoid traditional court proceedings after being accused of a crime by agreeing to treatment, monitoring and other conditions.
Leary helped launch the first Veterans Track in Nashua in 2014 and the program is now offered in Manchester Circuit Court, Rockingham County Superior Court, and in Grafton County, where separate reviews are held for veterans following sessions of the county’s three Mental Health Courts.
“They know there’s a problem and they know they need help but they don’t have a clue what to do,” Leary says of veterans with issues related to their service. “What these programs do is provide them some direction so they can see what to do.”
That Marine went into in-patient treatment and graduated from the program two years ago, Leary says, is now working for the federal government at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and is “doing phenomenally.”
Veterans Track programs have won the backing of judges, prosecutors, public defenders and others in the courts where they are offered and success stories like that of the young Marine are legion.
But hard data – such as recidivism rates — to back up those positive reports is hard to come by, and Veterans Track has not gained as much traction in New Hampshire or nationally as other treatment-based alternative programs like Drug Court or Mental Health Court.
A 2019 Marshall Project report found that most of the 3,000-plus counties in the country have specialized courts for drug addicts and the mentally ill, but fewer than 500 have opened veterans courts since the first one started in Buffalo, New York in 2008. Meanwhile, more than 180,000 U.S. veterans remain incarcerated, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
New Hampshire’s programs suffer from a lack of statewide coordination or “ownership,” according to Jill O’Brien, co-chair of the interdisciplinary Justice Involved Veterans Task Force and associate director of community support services at the Greater Nashua Mental Health Center. She and her group are seeking to address the paucity of statewide data about Veterans Track graduates in the hope of increasing funding and expanding the program to other counties.
Veterans Track advocates say “invisible wounds” like PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, and drug addiction – sometimes acquired while in combat – are predictable, and deserving of attention and redress when veterans leave military service.
“The criminal behavior is the symptom and not the problem,” says James Reis, a Portsmouth attorney who serves on the Veterans Track team in Rockingham County Superior Court and who helped start the program while serving as a public defender in early 2017. “We spend boatloads of money in training these folks and very little resources are expended when they come back.”
Referring to one veteran in the program, he adds, “He watched half his platoon get obliterated, he described picking up body parts, and then you come back to working at the Home Depot?”
Manchester attorney Lawrence A. Vogelman, who was then co-chair of the Justice Involved Veterans Task Force that started the first Veterans Tracks in the state, offers similar thoughts.
“One thing I feel strongly is, we sent them there, they got screwed up doing service to our country and I think we owe them something,” says Vogelman, who also runs a statewide practice offering free law services to veterans.
Veterans eligible to participate must have a condition thought to be related to their military service. The veteran’s attorney and the prosecutor agree that he or she would benefit from the program and the veteran signs a contract agreeing to treatment and monitoring by the court, generally for a year, during which time the state agrees to postpone judication.
If the veteran graduates from the program, prosecution is avoided and, depending on the court, charges may be dropped altogether. But if the contract is broken, prosecution may ensue.
Veterans Track court sessions are held monthly or weekly, depending on the court, with team members that can include a probation officer; representatives from the Veterans Administration, which provides treatment to V.A.-eligible service members; a prosecutor; judge; and public defenders.
“It’s very different from a real court. It’s not adversarial at all,” notes Vogelman.
That sentiment was echoed by “Jim” who waited outside the courtroom at Rockingham Country Superior Court with his service dog “Tank” in early February. The dog, a black lab mix, is used to alert Jim when he may have an episode of tachycardia, a condition that can cause heart failure.
Jim (who chose not to provide a last name) is a former Army Medic and bomb technician who has been on 3 deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq during his career. He plead into the program one year ago and was excited to be graduating soon.
“This program is about what benefits the veteran. It’s not one side versus the other,” Jim explained, adding that “in the military you have a job to do, you need to get a job done. The military mindset is hard to get rid of. Here we get the tools and support we need. We’re the most functional dysfunctional family you’ll come across.”
Participants in the program receive a mental health assessment and some form of mental health treatment, often with concurrent treatment for substance abuse, found in some 80 percent of cases, according to Leary.
Not all veterans are eligible for the array of services – ranging from out-of-state inpatient treatment to housing – that the V.A. provides. The criteria for being V.A.-eligible are myriad, according to Diane Levesque, veterans justice outreach coordinator at the Manchester V.A. Medical Center, but among them is the veteran cannot have been less than honorably discharged.
That eliminates many veterans who were dishonorably discharged because of substance abuse, for example, though sometimes such dishonorable discharges have been reversed after participation in a Veterans Track program.
Until recently, Easter Seals was offering treatment options for those in the program who were not V.A.-eligible, but the expiration of a grant brought an end to that service.
Many of the professionals who work with Veterans Track say one factor working in favor of participants is military camaraderie. Where defendants in other courts are often discouraged from associating with their friends for fear they will lapse into old patterns, those in Veterans Track often piggyback on each other’s successes, team members say.
“Veterans are a group that pretty strongly identify with other veterans so, while in Drug Court or Mental Health Court it would be unheard of for two criminal defendants to get together between court sessions and socialize, the people in Veterans Track become almost a community and support each other,” says Vogelman.
Prosecutor Aaron Dristiliaris from the Rockingham County Attorney’s Office remembers one participant who, upon learning a fellow member of the group with mental health problems had been arrested that day, asked if he could go talk to the man. While he wasn’t allowed in the cell block, Dristiliaris says, “it shows the level of camaraderie.”
Participants are not the only ones who feel that communal investment.
Sherry Bisson, clerk of the Nashua District Court, assisted Leary in getting the Veterans Track established there, says watching the judge interact with participants and following their successes is “the best part of my week.”
“He really develops a relationship with them and they get to know him,” she says of Leary. “By the end, it’s usually a year, they trust him. He shares in their joys, their struggles, because they’ve built that relationship over that time and he wants them to succeed, as well.”
Still, challenges remain for Veterans Tracks in New Hampshire.
Buy-ins from county attorneys is critical to the program’s success and “more therapeutic or treatment-related sanctions are often not viewed as appropriate by individual prosecutors,” says Reis. “The culture of the county definitely dictates how successful treatment-oriented programs are.”
Judges who hear cases do so in addition to their usual responsibilities, and many others who work for the program are volunteers. Coordination among Veterans Tracks is so minimal that no one knows for certain how many dozens of veterans have participated in the program statewide – though O’Neill is trying to gather that information.
“We have a very well-developed program for the Drug Court – legislation, a Drug Court in every county, funding,” she says. “When it cones to Mental Health Court or Veterans Court (Track), these programs are operating standing alone… Where we really fall short is ownership, who’s responsible? Who’s ensuring that data is collected and reviewed?”
The current focus of the Justice Involved Veterans Task Force, she adds, is to bring stakeholders together and accumulate that statewide data “to help advance the conversation about pursuing grant funding or fiscal legislation to support the non-V.A. eligible.”
Legislation is now pending to expand Mental Health Court, O’Neill says, and if a statewide Mental Health Court coordinator were to be appointed, perhaps that person’s responsibilities could be expanded to include Veterans Track.
“I’ve seen people go through the program and seen the enormous improvement and the need,” she says. “We’re working in an environment where there’s not enough judges, even to sustain the current programs. I want to be at the point where we’re expanding into different counties.”
Some advocates are also pressing for more awareness about the program, so more veterans can reap its benefits.
Leary recommends that Bar members representing people in criminal cases ask whether they or their family members have ever served in the military.
“If the answer is yes, they’re eligible for these services,” the judge says. “Make that part of your initial meeting with your client. Ask the question.”