Court opened with the Pledge of Allegiance: Military veterans swiveled and faced the flag before turning to face Judge Eleanor C. Sinnott. As one defendant after another was called up before her on Wednesday morning, Sinnott did something unusual for a Boston Municipal Court judge hearing criminal cases: She asked them how they were feeling.
“I know that you had a tough time recently, losing a friend. . . . Are you OK?” she said to Robert Topham, an Army veteran facing charges including assault and battery who was in court for his weekly check-in. “Is there anything you’d like to talk to me about?”
Sinnott, a former Navy intelligence officer attached to Special Operations Command Korea Unit, presides over Boston’s new Veterans Treatment Court session, which lawmakers officially launched Wednesday in the Edward W. Brooke Courthouse. It is the first veterans court in Suffolk County and the second in the state, and is designed to help treat military veterans arrested for crimes linked to trauma caused by their service.
“When veterans end up on the wrong side of the law, we shouldn’t and don’t turn our backs on them,” said Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh. “Instead, we use it as an engagement to get them the services they need and they deserve. We don’t set laws aside, we bring the administration of justice in line with our values.”
The veterans court began holding sessions at the end of January, and currently has three people in the program and another 12 in the pipeline. It is staffed with specially trained judges, clinicians, probation officers, and attorneys, many of whom are veterans themselves.
Program participants receive rehabilitation and treatment for substance abuse issues, alcoholism, mental health issues, and emotional disabilities, as well as academic and vocational training and placement services.
“We cannot arrest and incarcerate our way out of the many problems that we face,” said Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley. “Accountability takes many forms, and what justice and the public safety require is not always a jail cell.”
Across the country, there are about 130 veterans courts, and around 200 more in the planning stages, said Christopher Deutsch, director of communications at Justice for Vets, a nonprofit that implements veterans courts nationwide.
There are about 2.4 million veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Deutsch; one in six struggles with substance abuse and one in five suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. Across the country, he said, local law enforcement officials are seeing an increase in veteran arrests, often on charges linked to substance abuse or mental health issues such as operating under the influence or bar fights.
“These programs are not a get-out-of-jail-free card for veterans,” he said. “But many who are being arrested were not criminals before they served. Something happened to them that is driving their criminal behavior. . . . We can give them the tools to emerge from the justice system and be heroes of their communities.”
Not every veteran accused of a crime is eligible for the Boston treatment court session, said Sinnott. Applicants must persuade the court that their crime is linked to some trauma — such as post traumatic stress disorder or substance abuse — caused by their military service.
The first veterans court in the state opened in Dedham in 2012, and graduated its first class of five in November — a class that included 30-year-old David Odenweller, a former Marine who served in Iraq and said he fell into a “downward spiral” of emotional problems, unemployment, and addiction after coming home in 2006. He wound up in the Dedham veterans court after being charged in 2011 with possession of a narcotic, operating under the influence, and child endangerment.
“I’m two and a half years clean,” said Odenweller, who sat in on the veterans court hearing Wednesday. “It’s just been an amazing journey.”
He went through addiction treatment, and with the opening of the Boston Veterans Treatment Court session, he officially became a mentor to others still battling his old demons. Veterans in the program meet regularly with their mentors as part of the conditions of the program.
“I do want to give back, and I want to help these guys understand that I did it,” Odenweller said. “I want to see the look on their face when they do it, and that way, I can maybe relate it to how I might have looked.”
All veterans in the Boston program are expected to remain drug and alcohol free. The program takes one to two years to complete.
During court Wednesday, Sinnott spoke with each veteran about struggles and successes, and the hearing wrapped up with a recitation of the Boston Veterans Treatment Court Creed, an acrostic that spells out the word “Veteran.”
In unison, the veterans completed the verse:
“Always will I protect the honor of my veteran community; Never will I give up.”Evan Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.