Criminal Justice

Veterans treatment courts offer a second chance for veterans in the criminal justice system

By Tom Solberg, State Bar of Wisconsin

Nov. 11, 2009 – Veterans Day is observed across America each year to honor the past service and sacrifices made by the nation’s nearly 25 million military veterans. But in Wisconsin, Veterans Day 2009 offers an opportunity to look forward to the benefits of a new court program shaped by the state’s legal community and others to respond to the unique needs of combat veterans processing through the criminal justice system.

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Wisconsin opened its first veterans treatment court on Sept. 17, 2009 in Rock County, with Judge James Daley presiding, and similar courts may open soon to serve Chippewa, Dunn, Eau Claire, Juneau, La Crosse and Milwaukee Counties.

The courts are similar in principle to drug and juvenile diversion initiatives, but with a focus on the special circumstances impacting the lives of veterans facing (primarily non-violent) criminal charges. "Given the sacrifices we ask them to make when we send them off to war, it makes sense for society to offer extra help and consideration to veterans who face legal problems when they return home,” explains La Crosse County Judge Todd Bjerke. "Our real goal is to make their first brush with the law their last by addressing the underlying issues many returning veterans face, including trauma-related mental health and substance abuse problems.”

The veterans treatment court concept was pioneered by Buffalo, New York Judge Robert Russell in 2008. Judge Russell helped spur interest in the idea here when he spoke to a conference convened in October 2008 by Lieutenant Governor Barbara Lawton and State Public Defender (SPD) Nick Chiarkas as part of the Wisconsin Veterans Intervention Program (WI-VIP). Judge Russell reported that his court has successfully helped veterans turn their lives away from crime (and saved New York state an estimated $12 million in social service costs), in large part by pairing offenders with mentors who have also served and understand some of the stresses they face.

A two-day conference sponsored in July 2009 by the Veterans’ Administration and several key state agencies, including the courts, the SPD and the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Corrections and Justice, added further impetus by bringing over 150 judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, corrections staff and law enforcement professionals together to identify ways to successfully move veterans through the system and provide the services they need to avoid further contact.

The Leave No One Behind: Veterans in the Criminal Justice System conference “was a big success,” notes Peter Anderson, of the SPD office. “We feel that this shared base of knowledge will help when working with veterans and contribute to the success of the veterans’ treatment courts as they develop around the state.”

The effort was also boosted earlier this year when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offered grant money to communities that divert people with trauma-related disorders from the criminal justice system.

The Assembly Committee on Veterans and Military Affairs held an informational hearing in October on the availability of clinical, social, legal, and preventative services for Wisconsin veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Invited speakers, including representatives from the SPD and Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, testified on veteran treatment courts and related topics. Their testimony can be viewed on WisconsinEye.

Judge Bjerke’s advocacy for a veterans treatment court in La Crosse County is informed by both his 19 years as a prosecutor and 25 years of military service. He spent three years as an active duty U.S. Marine Corps JAG (Judge Advocate General), where he defended over 600 Marines accused of various crimes. After leaving active duty, he transferred to the U.S. Army Reserves, where he has assisted soldiers with family, contract, probate, labor and a range of other legal issues.

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Through his involvement with the state’s criminal justice system Judge Bjerke has also seen the benefits of the drug diversion court, which has graduated many people who had suffered from serious substance abuse problems but are now holding productive jobs.

“The veterans treatment court concept is really all about using the criminal justice system and a variety of other community and professional resources to promote positive changes in people’s lives,” he concludes. “We owe a special debt to veterans that requires more than our gratitude – it also requires our sincere efforts to help them overcome service-related problems so they will become fully participating members of our society and community.”

Related articles:

Veterans in the criminal justice system conference leaves no one behind – July 8, 2009
Justice system partnerships spearheaded by State Public Defender, VA and Lt. Governor target help for veterans – March 11, 2009



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