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Veteran Treatment Courts: Justice for Our Heroes

Javier Centonzio, Stetson Law '12, is an Iraq War veteran. He writes about the veterans issues addressed by Veteran Treatment Courts...

Throughout our nation's history we have resorted to armed conflict to resolve differences among ourselves and other nations. We have been ready and willing to send our young men and women to far-off lands without much forethought or planning of how we would care for them once they returned home. The current conflicts in which our country is involved have produced over 2 million veterans, many of whom experience difficulties readjusting to life back home in America. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is tasked with providing federal benefits and health care to our nation's veterans. Their motto, "To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan," comes from President Lincoln's second inaugural address. These words were chosen to signify the commitment the federal government has to providing services and care for our veterans.

On January 11th, 2010 Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki addressed a suicide prevention conference held in Washington, D.C. During his address, Secretary Shinseki confirmed the existence of an epidemic that many feared existed in our country. "Of more than 30 thousand suicides in this country each year, fully 20 percent of them are Veteran suicides. That means, on average, eighteen Veterans commit suicide each day." As a combat veteran of Iraq, the news that 18 veterans take their lives each day was not surprising to me. I know of many fellow veterans who chose to commit suicide. What was surprising was the apathy of the American people once the rate of suicide was made public. This apathy made me realize I had to serve as a voice for veterans and raise awareness.

The illusions I once had of returning to a grateful nation where veterans could enjoy the freedoms we fought to protect were replaced with the truth that we must continue to fight once we return. It is vital that we fight and advocate for those who have served, are serving or will serve in the future. Veterans represent every demographic in our society; whether rich or poor, black or white, gay or straight, they have all made a commitment to serve others and have selflessly done so. They give so much and ask for nothing in return but to be allowed to enjoy the freedoms and liberty they fought to protect.

Secretary Shinseki urged those attending the suicide prevention conference to identify their role in preventing suicide amongst veterans and to take ownership of the problem. What is the role of the legal profession in preventing suicide among veterans? The legal issues that veterans face are as diverse and numerous as they themselves are diverse and numerous. A precious few in our profession have set the example of what our role is in this fight. I had the honor of meeting one of these precious few, the Honorable Judge Robert Russell. Judge Russell is an Associate Judge for the Buffalo City Court and created Buffalo's Drug Treatment Court and Mental Health Treatment Court.

While presiding over these courts, Judge Russell noticed a growing number of returning veterans appearing on his dockets and other treatment court dockets in surrounding areas. This troubling trend sparked Judge Russell to take ownership of the problem and identify his role in helping veterans. On January 15th, 2008, Judge Russell established the nation's first-ever Veteran Treatment Court in Buffalo, New York. In creating the first Veteran Treatment Court, Judge Russell took a pro-active approach to dealing with problems faced by veterans by developing a specialized treatment court to meet their particularized needs.

The effects of war significantly contribute to mental illness, substance abuse, homelessness, arrests and suicide among veterans. The Veteran Treatment Court provides judicially supervised treatment plans that are developed by a team of professionals working with the individual veteran. The team consists of mental health professionals, health care professionals, peer mentors and court staff. Once the veteran completes his or her program of treatment, he or she will have the charges dismissed or be given an alternative, non-incarcerative sentence. Soon after creating the Veteran Treatment Court, Judge Russell and his staff received numerous requests from other treatment professionals throughout the country for guidance on handling the growing number of veterans on their dockets.

Currently there are over 50 Veteran Treatment Courts operating in 21 states. While the number of Veteran Treatment Courts is growing, it has not yet reached an adequate level to deal with the number of veterans needing the treatment these courts provide. With the growing trend of criminalizing homelessness in our country, the large population of homeless veterans would benefit greatly from the treatment provided through these courts. Judge Russell discovered one role that our profession can play in preventing veteran suicides and showing appreciation for their service.

On November 3rd, 2009 Secretary Shinseki unveiled the VA's five-year plan to end homelessness among veterans. Part of this five-year plan requires that yearly summits be held throughout the nation's VA facilities. On Thursday, February 3rd, I attended the Homeless Summit at the Bay Pines VA Medical Center to find out more about this five-year plan and how I could help as a law student. One of the first things that struck me about the event was the repeated requests for input and ideas from those in attendance. The room was filled with local health care professionals, mental health professionals, social workers, counselors, law enforcement officers and concerned citizens. The most intriguing part of the event came when they announced that Veteran Treatment Courts are now part of the plan.

The VA's recognition of the need to implement Veteran Treatment Courts is an important step in ensuring our veterans receive the treatment they need and the services they have earned. There are still many steps that need to be taken in order to create Veteran Treatment Courts in every state so that every veteran has access to justice. I urge those of you who are interested in helping our heroes to take action and contact your local representatives and members of the bar to tell them of the importance of helping our veterans obtain access to justice. We have lost too many of our bravest and brightest to suicide and a criminal justice system that was not designed to serve their particularized needs. When they took an oath to defend our great nation they did so without hesitation or concern for themselves, but this is no excuse for us to hesitate now when they need us the most. It is up to each and every one of us to show them that we are concerned about them and that we value the sacrifices they have made on our behalf.

Witnessing first hand the difficulties faced by those in countries devoid of the rule of law had a tremendous impact on me. While some among us may point to countries lacking the legal system we possess with a sense of pride and hubris, it is clear that our system is far from perfect. Our failure to address the legal issues and meet the needs of our heroes is clear evidence of our imperfection. Veterans deserve the very best of our profession and our legal system; a system that itself would cease to exist without their service and sacrifice.

Veterans in need of assistance are encouraged to contact the resources below:

VA Homeless Website: http://www.va.gov/homeless/
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK; Veterans press 1
Online: http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/Veterans/Default.aspx
National Call Center for Homeless Veterans: 1-877-4AID-VET (424-3838)

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.

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Student Commentary publishes accounts of law students' first-hand experience with law and law-related events. Student Commentary contributors come from all over the world, sharing personal stories on legal matters ranging from the G-20 summit protests in the US to the plight of migrant workers in Taiwan.

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