Special Courts Gives Vets Second Chance

May 23, 2009

The “veterans court,” one of several popping up across the country, is aimed at getting nonviolent soldiers with otherwise clean records into treatment, sparing them a criminal conviction. Treatment can include psychological counseling or drug and alcohol rehab.

“I’ve been awed in that they take into account that you volunteered for your country and that it stands for something,” said Myatt, with roughly 23 years of service in the Army and, lately, the National Guard. “The judge and the others are saying our own brothers are lost in the system and we can help. This is our own taking care of our own.”

The court in Illinois – like others in New York, Tulsa, Okla., and other spots – is patterned on the nation’s drug courts, which are meant to keep low-level drug offenders out of overcrowded prisons. Just two months old, the Illinois veterans court is staffed by a judge, public defender and prosecutor who all served in the military.

Veterans and those on active duty are steered toward the court. It is generally offered to offenders whose crimes, mostly misdemeanors, are believed to be related somehow to their military service.  Organizers of veterans courts say the need for them is real and growing, given the thousands of combat veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan who may be struggling to readjust to civilian life.

The first veterans court began in Buffalo, N.Y., in January 2008. Authorities said it is too early to tell whether the courts reduce the rate at which defendants break the law again, but Buffalo has seen encouraging signs. More than 90 percent of the veterans’ treatment appointments have been kept there, dwarfing the average rate of 35 percent at general treatment clinics, officials said.



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