Plans are underway to create a special “veterans’ court” in Boston that would provide services for veterans entering the court system who struggle with substance abuse or mental health issues.
The initiative will employ a team-based approach that most likely will involve lawyers, probation officers, counselors, and Veterans Administration staff to help offenders get back on the right track.
“As we commemorate Veterans Day, we are mindful that there are many warriors among us who have returned from distant battlefields only to discover that they are still at war,” Mayor Thomas M. Menino said in a statement announcing the partnership with the Massachusetts Trial Court.
Many veterans struggle with debilitating addictions, post-traumatic stress disorder, or the effects of traumatic brain injuries, the mayor said. “Their afflictions lead some to criminal activity and the court system, and traditional measures are both inappropriate and unproductive for these men and women.”
The veterans’ court would be the first of its kind in Suffolk County. While the exact format has not been decided, it would probably be modeled after a pilot program that launched in Norfolk County last year.
“A lot of these young warriors feel stigmatized,” said Bill Sinnott, a retired Marine and corporation counsel for the city of Boston. “Trying to get them in a place where they can seek these services and feel comfortable is a real challenge. These men and women deserve a second chance.”
The Norfolk County program holds sessions led by Judge Mary Hogan Sullivan, the mother of a former Marine. It serves veterans ranging age from 22 to 70, including those who have served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam.
Sinnott sat in earlier this year on some of the sessions, which take place Tuesdays on the second floor of Dedham District Court, and was impressed by what he saw.
“I was fascinated by the whole concept,” said Sinnott. “You don’t know whether you’re in a court session or an A.A. session.”
Every veteran offender remained in the courtroom while they talked to the judge about their progress, as well as their setbacks, according to Sinnott.
“It’s fascinating to watch,” Sinnott said, especially when the veterans report the progress they have made. The fellow veterans in the courtroom will often share words of encouragement, he said. “They’ll say, ‘Great job, John. Atta boy, John.’ ”
This type of initiative is not unique to Massachusetts. According to the advocacy group Justice For Vets, the first “Veterans Treatment Court” was established in Buffalo in 2008. The idea has since spread across the country. As of July 2012, there were 104.
If all goes according to plan, Boston’s will be the next one. Under the newly reached agreement, the Massachusetts Trial Court and the city will work to create the first veterans’ court in Boston and fund the training of personnel.
In a statement, Chief Justice Paula M. Carey of the Trial Court said she welcomed the mayor’s support.
More than 385,000 veterans currently live in Massachusetts, including 37,000 men and women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Massachusetts Trial Court sees many veterans dealing with drug dependency, mental health issues, and homelessness.
Francisco Urena, commissioner of Boston’s Veterans’ Services Department, said the new program would aim to rehabilitate veterans who are “struggling to integrate into society” and “give them other options if they find themselves on the other side of the law.”
“It’s a very strict program. It’s not a free pass,” he added.
Urena also believes the program will help “identify vets who are struggling so we can begin to advocate for them.”
Urena is from East Boston and spent eight years in the Marines, receiving a Purple Heart for his service. He said soldiers today often face multiple deployments and have little time to recover from the stress of combat before plunging back into civilian life.
During World War II, he said, military personnel often traveled together on a ship back home, giving them time to process and share their experiences. Today, a member of the National Guard might be in combat one day and “within 48 hours be on streets of Boston.”
“They don’t have that unit or group” or time to help them decompress, he said. “The fact is that we know that veterans are coming back with post-traumatic stress.”
Marc “Moses” Mallard, a 54-year-old Army veteran who is about to move into a new home from the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans in Boston, said many former service members struggle when they return to civilian life.
“War has a traumatic effect on a lot of people, and [nonveterans] don’t understand unless they’ve been through it. They don’t know what it’s like to walk in the shoes of someone who’s walked that path,” Mallard said. “If you’ve never been there, you’re not going to know.”
Mallard said the creation of a veterans’ court is a step in the right direction for the city.
“You have a lot more boys coming home, and they’ll need a lot more mental health services than what’s available,” said Mallard in an interview at the shelter. “There’s going to be a big onslaught of problems coming our way.”
Indeed, the need is already there: According to Justice For Vets, 1 in 5 veterans has symptoms of a mental health issue, and 1 in 6 veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffers from a substance abuse problem.
“Sometimes, not all, but some start self-medicating, or they hit the bottle, or somehow end up on the other side of the law by committing a crime,” Urena said. “Instead of saying, let’s punish them for the crime, let’s look into how we can correct the problem that led them there.”Emily Sweeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.