On Veteran’s Day last week, the Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times suggesting that a special court for veterans, modeled on drug courts, should be adoped across the country. It sounds like a wonderful and compassionate idea.
Justice Castile, himself a veteran, described the program started in Erie three years ago.
Here’s how it works. Veterans typically charged with nonviolent crimes and suffering from substance dependency, mental health problems or both are placed in a special docket. After an initial screening and assessment by the court, they are offered a place in a treatment program geared to veterans instead of standing trial.
Compliance is monitored through regularly scheduled court hearings, during which participants can be sanctioned for noncompliance or rewarded for their success.
Because the courts are reserved for veterans, they serve as a recognition of past service and an effective way to reawaken the service members’ pride, discipline and courage — critical elements in helping many resolve their problems. It helps, too, that the veterans are in the program with one another, fostering a sense of camaraderie.
Moreover, the courts assign volunteer mentors to support the participants, and both the Department of Veterans Affairs and community-based organizations are available to provide treatment after the assessments.
As a result, 90 percent of participants complete the program, without a single case of recidivism. Judge Russell’s initiative has been copied by courts across the country, including in California, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Wisconsin.
There is no reason that creative dispute system design cannot be used to help those who have served us. As Justice Castile wrote, “Repaying America’s debt to its veterans means giving them the opportunity to succeed in civilian life. Veterans courts are a pragmatic way we can repay that debt and save veterans from additional suffering.”