Veteran’s Treatment Courts-National Institute of Corrections

Veteran’s Treatment Courts-National Institute of Corrections

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LEONARD SIPES: From the nation’s capital this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host Leonard Sipes. Ladies and gentlemen our show today is on veteran’s treatment courts. By our microphones, back at our microphones, Greg Crawford, he is a corrections program specialist for the National Institute of corrections. We have Melissa Fitzgerald, Senior Director of Justice for Vets and she played Carol in the West Wing. And we have another person with a strong media background, Bernie Edelman, he is Deputy Director for Policy and Government Affairs for the Vietnam Veterans of America. To Greg and Bernie and Melissa, welcome to DC Public Safety.



LEONARD SIPES: Greg you’ve got a Veterans Treatment Court white paper coming out in December, so why don’t you start off giving the program giving us a snippet of the Treatment Court white paper that’s coming out, also a program workshop with the American Probation and Parole Association. But first of all, give me a quick definition of Veterans Treatment Courts. What are they? Melisa did you want to go?

MELISSA FITZGERALD: Certainly, I would be happy to. Veterans Treatment Courts are an alternative to incarceration for veterans who are suffering with a mental health and or substance abuse disorders stemming from their service. And they are unlike any other court room you’ve ever seen.

LEONARD SIPES: And why is that?

MELISSA FITZGERALD: They are not only places of strict accountability, which of course they are, but they are also places of hope and they are places of healing. They ensure that when veterans struggle with the transition home, they get the structure, treatment, and mentoring they need to get their lives back on track.


MELISSA FITZGERALD: These are lifesaving court rooms, they’re staffed by criminal justice professionals who have been specially trained to assess and treat the veterans that appear before them. And this interdisciplinary team consists of, judge, probation officer, defense, prosecution, a mental health care provider, a representative from the VA and then one of my favorite components is the volunteer veteran mentors who serve as mentors for their brothers and sisters who are struggling in the program.

LEONARD SIPES: Sounds fantastic. Greg what are the percentage of people caught up in the criminal justice system? You mentioned how many?

GREG CRAWFORD: Well Len, we have, you know as I’ve mentioned on prior shows, the United States incarcerates more folks than any other country in the world. And about 12% of our US prison population is veterans.

LEONARD SIPES: Well that’s amazing and that’s distressing.

GREG CRAWFORD: And so you mentioned, Veterans Treatment Court white paper. Bernie Edelman is our author on the project and we initially met with Melissa Fitzgerald and the good folks from Justice for Vets and sort of mapped out a game plan and got some information on some of the promising courts across the country. And we made six site visits across the country and met with each of the Veterans Treatment Court teams. We obviously started with Buffalo which was the site of the first Veterans Treatment Court team and we interviewed all the key players, as Melisa mentioned the judges, and the prosecutors, and defense, and VA and mentors and it really is a place of healing. We witnessed firsthand graduations and this is a tremendous opportunity. As I mentioned there’s about 12% of the US prison population but Veterans Treatment Courts are an opportunity to intervene at the front end of the system before things escalate for these veterans.

LEONARD SIPES: Well if there’s— if we’re going— there was a massive discussion, and Bernie I’m going to get to you in a second. There’s a massive discussion going on right now about the correctional population, whether or not it’s appropriate, whether or not the United States over incarcerates. And there is no doubt that we are first in the world in terms of the rate of incarceration. So the larger issue of veterans, if there’s any particular group that we’re going to take a hard look at and try to see if there are alternatives, it should be veterans it strikes me. I mean considering their backgrounds.

MELISSA FITZGERALD: Absolutely, I agree with you. I think it honors their service. But I also think it makes our community stronger because we need our veterans.


MELISSA FITZGERALD: And the vast majority of our veterans return home strengthened by their military service, they come home to our communities as leaders. And I believe that all of our veterans are of our greatest and most valuable civic assets, including our veterans who are struggling on the home front. And I think it is our duty as Americans to make sure that they receive the supports that they need and the services that they’ve earned and the benefits and the treatments that they’ve earned, to truly come home.

LEONARD SIPES: All right. Bernie, now you are the Veterans Treatment Court white paper. That’s one of the things that Greg brought up a little while ago. You’re Director of Policy and Government Affairs for Vietnam Veterans of America. What is the white paper? What did it deal with?

BERNARD EDELMAN: It dealt with, what is a Veteran Treatment Court. Why are these courts needed? It deals with how, what makes them work. How many court rooms have you ever been in, in which the defense attorney and the prosecutor are on the same side basically? Finding justice and trying to save a life of somebody who has served the country.

LEONARD SIPES: The white paper says what? In terms of conclusions did it take a look at the validity of treatment courts, the effectiveness of Veterans Treatment Courts?

BERNARD EDELMAN: The white paper is not about statistics and it’s not to try to evaluate anything. What it is, is trying to tell jurisdictions that are building Veterans Treatment Courts, and I use the word build with quotes around it, or are thinking about it, all they need to know is in this one paper.

LEONARD SIPES: Okay, great.

BERNARD EDELMAN: That’s that’s— And one of the things, there are a lot of jurisdictions that do not want treatment courts. Why? Because they want good numbers for prosecutions, convictions, et cetera. A lot of outlying judges, this isn’t their concept of justice, happens to be our concept of justice. And we’re giving an option to people. And it’s not only the freshly minted veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan and Bosnia before that. We have a lot of Vietnam veterans whose— I only wish we had veterans treatment courts when I got out of the Army 40 years ago.

LEONARD SIPES: The bottom line is that we can save a lot of individuals who are coming out of the military who have been caught up in the criminal justice system. We can save taxpayers literally hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars over the long run by intervening in their lives by saying if what you did was not murder, what you did was not rape, we’re going to intervene and see if we can help you out.

BERNARD EDELMAN: No. No, no, no, no, no, no.


BERNARD EDELMAN: It’s not about murder. Most courts do not deal with, if you’ve murdered somebody, nuh-uh.

MELISSA FITZGERALD: Not most courts, all courts. There are no murders. If there is any serious bodily injury, those are not included. That’s a different category that is not in Veteran Treatment Courts.

LEONARD SIPES: Okay, but that’s what I thought I said. What we’re talking about are crimes beyond that. We’re not talking about those sort of crimes.

BERNARD EDELMAN: No we’re talking about crimes that, there may be some violence, in some cases, some courts have misdemeanor offences. The thing is, once you get your name into the criminal justice system, it’s there. And if you want to talk about getting jobs, you have a record, you’re an ex con, forget about it. Forget it your life is not going to be what you’d like it to be.

LEONARD SIPES: So it’s extremely important considering the service that they provided to our country to, when the crimes are appropriate, to intervene and to try to extract them from the criminal justice system through drug treatment courts.

MELISSA FITZGERALD: And I also think it very important to note that the veterans, who are appearing in the Veterans Treatment Courts, must have a clinical diagnosis of a mental health and or substance abuse disorder. And I do think that it is important that we recognize that they must benefit from treatment. And they are. That’s the other thing that we’re talking about. And there are mountains of evidence; you know Veterans Treatment Courts are hybrid courts or drug courts and mental health courts. So they are already in the general population, these specialized treatment courts and there are mountains of evidence. Drug courts is one of the most widely studied—

LEONARD SIPES: Yes they are.



MELISSA FITZGERALD: So they’ve been around for 25 years and are incredibly successful, the most successful criminal justice model in the history of our country and Veterans Treatment Courts follow the drug court model.

LEONARD SIPES: That’s correct and it’s a wonderful idea. Now for people listening to this show, the white paper is going to come out sometime in mid-December correct? And where do they go? Do they go to the website for the National Institute of Corrections Greg?


LEONARD SIPES: Okay. Somewhere around say December 15th you’re going to be able to find the white paper on the Veterans Drug Treatment Court on the website of the National Institute of Corrections. Greg, you wanted to say something?

GREG CRAWFORD: Yeah. You know one of the things I wanted to bring up about the white paper that I think is unique, is that it’s a peer to peer, judge to judge, passing along information to other prosecutors to prosecutors, defense to defense, about the struggles of implementation, about what’s working, what were the successes and what were the challenge. And so we’re going to tell these stories as well.


BERNARD EDELMAN: And it’s about stories. This is not going to be like most government publications which—


BERNARD EDELMAN: — gather dust on shelves.

LEONARD SIPES: Greg found that funny.



BERNARD EDELMAN: Or wind up in the circular file. These are stories and there’s something that I like. I like it when people are able to speak. We edit them a bit but Judge Robert Russell, of several people in their own words. We’ve recorded them, we let them tell their story. Patrick Welch, marine veteran, left part of his foot in Vietnam. How he became an advocate, he tells that story beautifully, there’s nothing I can do to improve upon that by quoting him, and interjecting myself. It’s about stories, we want it to be eminently readable, so that people will get into it and they’ll want to go through it.

LEONARD SIPES: Alright we don’t normally  book shows while we’re doing shows, but Greg I want to get three of these success stories by Skype, and I want to interview them after the white paper comes out. So sometime in February if we could interview three of these individuals, so that they could tell their own stories directly that would be wonderful.

BERNARD EDELMAN: And you will see five, if I recall, five stories of individuals, many in relation to Patrick up in Baltimore, excuse me in Buffalo, whose life was coming apart, because of various substances that he has abused for too many years. Lot of people in the criminal justice system, didn’t think he’d make it. Turns out he did, he is now a mentor himself. Let me say something about mentors, mentors are other veterans who have been through, similar circumstances. Lot of them are Vietnam veterans or Gulf 1 veterans. They can talk to somebody from the current wars and because they’ve been through it together, they’ve had similar experiences, they, the young person who has had problems with the law, has somebody whom he can talk to. Who will help him out in ways that go well beyond what you normally get in the courtroom.

LEONARD SIPES: Well the mentoring experience has worked for us at the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, we do a lot of faith based mentoring. Melissa go ahead.

MELISSA FITZGERALD: Oh no I was just going to say that one of the things that is particularly meaningful, just expanding upon what Bernie was saying, about these courtrooms. Is the comradery that exists, having all the veterans on the same docket. So let’s say in Buffalo, Tuesday morning from nine to noon is Veteran’s Treatment Court. All the veterans that are appearing as part of the veterans treatment court, come at that same time. Plus all the mentors, so the comradery in that courtroom, and time and time again I’ve heard from the veterans participating in the programs, that this is a key piece of what makes them so successful. Because they say I’m not just in this for me, I’m in this for my brothers and sisters, and I want them to succeed, and myself, and so many have said to me in this courtroom. I got my unit back.

LEONARD SIPES: That’s amazing, an amazing story. What percentage I’ll throw it out to any of you, what percentage of individuals caught up in the criminal justice system who are veterans, could be saved from, as you said a little while ago Bernie, having a life of crime. In terms of a criminal background following them, how many and what percentage could we see and extract from the criminal justice system, turning them into tax payers instead of tax burdens?

BERNARD EDELMAN: It’s hard to give a number, and it’s not that they’ll lead a life of crime necessarily, but somebody who had ideas and ideals for what she wanted to do, when she joined the military, then got out and found out that there wasn’t a place for her in society. She feels alienated from society, and she gives up, that’s what Melissa said before, it’s a place of hope and that’s the key thing.

LEONARD SIPES: But we have to give people a sense as to what the potential is here, a bit part of the criminal justice system is a certain doubt as to our efficacy, as to our effectiveness. Drug courts, Melissa mentioned a little while ago, are very successful. So drug courts are routinely turning in, 20% reductions in recidivism. I was wondering if that percentage could be increased in terms of veteran’s courts?

MELISSA FITZGERALD: Well we have every reason to believe that we will at least match that number, because I think of the added benefits of veteran’s courts including the mentors, and then also some of the, much of the treatment is provided by the VA in terms of cost savings. So —

LEONARD SIPES: I did want to get into that, the VA is I would assume totally supportive of this concept?

BERNARD EDELMAN: The VA is a partner in this effort, without the VA I don’t think the courts would work. They have computers, laptops that they bring into the courtroom. So someone says I missed my last appointment to see my psychologist, they’ll call, they’ll get him an appointment in 30 minutes.

MELISSA FITZGERALD: If the judge says I want this young man or this young woman to get addiction treatment at the VA. The VA rep in real time is sitting there on the computer connecting them to that.

LEONARD SIPES: So it’s not the horror stories we’ve been hearing in the media about—


LEONARD SIPES: So it’s really working in terms of veteran’s treatment court.

BERNARD EDELMAN: Yes absolutely.

MELISSA FITZGERALD: It’s a real success story for the VA I think.

BERNARD EDELMAN: Not only that, I witnessed in the courtroom in Buffalo, somebody didn’t have their benefits yet and the VA pushed them through. So they walked out the door with an appointment and their benefits.

LEONARD SIPES: We’re halfway through the program, let me reintroduce everybody. Ladies and gentlemen this is a fascinating show, on the Veteran’s Treatment Courts. We have Greg Crawford back at our microphones, correctional program specialist for the National Institute of Corrections. We have Melissa Fitzgerald, Senior Director of Justice for Vets, who used to play Carol in the West Wing, and I’m very impressed by that Bernie Edelman. He’s Deputy Director for Policy and Government Affairs for the Vietnam Veterans of America. He also has his own media background. is where this white paper that we’re talking about is going to be posted, Melissa go ahead.

MELISSA FITZGERALD: Well first of all, also Justice for Vets can be found at and we have a tremendous amount of information on there. You know 2008 the very first Veteran’s Treatment Court was launched in Buffalo, New York, as was mentioned by Judge Robert Russell. We now have over 197 Veteran’s Treatment Courts nationwide, with hundreds more in the works.

LEONARD SIPES: Wait a minute, wait a minute, how many?


LEONARD SIPES: 197, close to 200 Veteran’s Treatment’s Courts. Now that’s a headline unto itself.


LEONARD SIPES: We just made news today.

GREG CRAWFORD: With hundreds and various stages of implementation.

LEONARD SIPES: With hundreds at various stages of implementation.

MELISSA FITZGERALD: These are catching on like wildfire, and why? Because they work, as of today, there are right now, 10,000 veterans who are being served in a Veteran’s Treatment Court, who would otherwise be incarcerated.




MELISSA FITZGERALD: Returning home to their families, being parents to their children, having jobs, going back to school, and being the leaders in our communities, that we need them to be. There was a young man in the Montgomery County Veteran’s Treatment Court in Pennsylvania, one of the first that I visited. He was the first participant in this Veteran’s Treatment Court, and he went through, it took him three years to get through the Veteran’s Treatment Court, because he had to pay back restitution. He went back to school, he got clean and sober, he has a full time job, he is a very involved and proud father to his son, and he is living a productive life, and he’s grateful for the second chance. When I went into that courtroom, to really observe, he walked up to me and said, do you have a business card, because I want to help you. I want to make sure other Veterans got the same —

LEONARD SIPES: That’s great.

MELISSA FITZGERALD: — chance that I had.

LEONARD SIPES: Greg you know this is sort of, I don’t know the word to use, but there are disagreements, people agree to disagree in terms of what it is, that we in the criminal justice system should be doing, at all levels. But this seems to be a wedge to bring people together. I mean this is something that nobody is going to disagree with regardless of where they are in the political spectrum. Everybody is going to say hey if the crime is appropriate and the person has the background that you’re talking about, for the love of heavens let’s give this person a second chance.

GREG CRAWFORD: Yes if you have any doubts whatsoever I encourage you to go visit a graduation at a Veteran’s Treatment Court. I went to a graduation in Erie County in Colorado Springs, I saw a young man graduate, and his wife and two young children were in the courtroom. About 18 months earlier he was headed to prison, but he got an opportunity in a Veteran’s Treatment Court, and not only is he a productive member of society, he’s going to school, he’s got a job, he’s caring for his family. His wife didn’t give up on him, and his children hugged him at the end of the graduation, if that doesn’t bring tears to your eyes, I don’t know what will.

LEONARD SIPES: But so many people caught up in the criminal justice system, that’s part of the problem because they’ve burnt their bridges and they’ve burnt their bridges so often, with so many people. They feel apart from their family, they feel apart from their community, and Bernie I sort of got the sense that that’s where you were going with your remarks before?

BERNARD EDELMAN: Some veterans you have to remember don’t have family. Their family was the unit that they served with, watch your six, I’ll watch yours you watch mine. They come back, they want to get out, they’ve served for four years, six years, ten years, whatever it is, they’re lost. Maybe the mother is a drug addict, the father has not been around, there’s no family there. You go into a Veteran’s Treatment Court because somebody believed that this guy would, has the possibility of turning his life around. That’s what happens, you go through phases in a treatment court, it’s not a giveaway, it’s harder for a lot of people to have to do this, than it is to say just go to prison for three years.

LEONARD SIPES: Very few people understand that, very few people understanding facing their own demons is one of the hardest sentences they could possibly have.

BERNARD EDELMAN: And that’s what it’s about to a very great extent and the turnaround with some of these people is extraordinary.

MELISSA FITZGERALD: It takes a certain kind of courage to face your demons.



MELISSA FITZGERALD: It absolutely takes courage to serve your country and to be willing to risk your life for your country, and I think it takes a different kind of courage to say, I’m going to enter a Veteran’s Treatment Court. I’m going to face my demons. And let’s face it, going to jail or prison they’re not going to get the treatment that they need. They’re not going to get the counseling that they need to really return back a healthy citizen. So this is restoring lives.

LEONARD SIPES: I’m going to guess and suggest that people who have been through the military are more prone to face their demons because of the discipline, and because of the unit structure that they’ve come from, that maybe a different experience from regular people that we get within the criminal justice system, who do not have that background.

BERNARD EDELMAN: There are a lot of folks in the military who come back with post-traumatic stress disorder, with TBI.


GREG CRAWFORD: Traumatic brain injury.

LEONARD SIPES: Okay thank you.

BERNARD EDELMAN: And because of that, there’s something that is missing, they come back to a totally different country, that they don’t relate to. Right now fewer than 1%, I believe it may even be half of 1% of Americans serve in the military. That’s an extraordinary number, when I was in Vietnam it was various estimates 4% to 9%. World War II it was everybody just about. The mass of Americans do not have to serve, it’s all volunteer. Those who step forward and volunteer, for whatever reason, whether it’s economic or they simply want to serve their nation, the nation has to serve them. It’s our obligation to serve them. If they make a mistake because of drugs, or alcohol, which is self-medication for a lot of these folks. Self-medication, they crash into a telephone pole, they have three DUIs or DWI arrests. Somebody sees them and says this guy can be helped.

LEONARD SIPES: Greg go ahead.

GREG CRAWFORD: Len I just, since 9/11 we’ve had approximately 2.6 million people serve in our country. About one and a half million of those have deployed, not once or twice to Afghanistan, Iraq or both, but four and five and six times. They’re coming back and they’re struggling, they’re struggling and that’s why it’s so critical for the community to get around these folks, and get an understanding.

LEONARD SIPES: Well that’s the perspective issue that I tried to start off the program with, and before we hit the record button. So now you all, the three of you can start yelling at me. I don’t want to give the impression, I mean I know tons of former Vets that are doing fine.

BERNARD EDELMAN: There’s no such thing as a former Vet by the way.


MELISSA FITZGERALD: Nicely done Bernie.

BERNARD EDELMAN: Communities embrace this, as far as I know we’ve never had an instance where the community has rejected this. These aren’t, these are people that served our nation, they are members of a community, okay, they come back, some of them, not all of them, need help, because they’re not reintegrating the way we’d like them to, and the way they would like to reintegrate, doesn’t happen. So they get into trouble and there’s a champion in the area who is usually a judge, sometimes a district attorney, sets up a Veteran’s Treatment Court. You get a lot of community input, you have the VA, you get prosecutor and defense attorney who are usually adversaries. Now they’re both advocates for this individual, and that’s what makes it work.

MELISSA FITZGERALD: And they get trained by Justice for Vets and I’m not just putting in a shameless plug.

LEONARD SIPES: No, no, please Melissa.

MELISSA FITZGERALD: We do the training and technical assistance for these courts, and it’s critical that they get trained by Justice for Vets. We’re the only national organization that does this, and make sure that they’re following the drug court, the ten point model. I think that is an important piece of it.

LEONARD SIPES: Nobody’s giving them a free ride, this is for accountability.


LEONARD SIPES: This is accountability.

MELISSA FITZGERALD: My father was a prosecutor, my entire childhood my father was an assistant district attorney. He is now my entire adulthood he’s been a judge, and he is a proponent of treatment courts, and what he said to me when I asked him about this, years ago, was Melissa, anyone who knows anything about these courts, is for them. They’re for them because they work.


MELISSA FITZGERALD: And I don’t always agree with my dad on everything, but I agree with him on this.

LEONARD SIPES: I have daughters, I know that.

MELISSA FITZGERALD: They work by doing a lot of things, they work by first of all, honoring the service of our veterans. They also work by reducing crime, they work by saving the tax payer a tremendous amount of money, and they return our healthy veterans back to our communities where we need them. These are men and women of honor, duty, leadership, respect, and lifelong service. We need them in our communities showing us and teaching us about true honor, and as you said, most veterans who return home, return home strengthened by their service. We cannot ignore the ones who are struggling.

BERNARD EDELMAN: And let me throw one other thing, recidivism, there are different definitions of recidivism.


BERNARD EDELMAN: But up in Buffalo, of the first 137, or 147 graduates, we call them graduates, only two got involved with the criminal justice system again.

LEONARD SIPES: That’s extraordinary.

MELISSA FITZGERALD: Unheard of numbers in criminal justice.

LEONARD SIPES: Those are unheard of numbers.

MELISSA FITZGERALD: And anecdotally there has been no national study, there’s been no national study yet, and we are clamoring for one. Largely because the very first one launched in 2008, and the majority have opened up in the past two years. However, anecdotally we’re seeing these are incredibly successful programs.

LEONARD SIPES: That’s the point that I was trying to get to from the beginning of the program, is that my assumption was that they would do better than the average person coming into the criminal justice system.

GREG CRAWFORD: Let me make a point about Veteran Treatment Courts, I think the thing that is so impressive, is that like Bernie talked, and Melissa talked about is everyone, the judge, the prosecutor, the defense, the VA, treatment, they’re all working together in a collaborative process, with one goal in mind, and that’s to help the veteran. That’s the difference.

LEONARD SIPES: Why didn’t we do this from the very beginning, why did it take so long? This seems to be so right and just to do.

GREG CRAWFORD: Because everyone threw everybody in jail and in prison.

LEONARD SIPES: Why did we do that Greg, we’re part of the criminal justice system?


LEONARD SIPES: Go ahead Bernie.

BERNARD EDELMAN: — with a couple of folks up in Buffalo, and Judge Russell, who I call the Godfather, but it’s nothing to do with Italian heritage or anything like that. Two guys who worked up there, Patrick Welch, Jack O’Conner, they were the lightning rod so to speak. They got the judge involved in what some other people were talking about, how do we help our incarcerated Vets and Vets who will be incarcerated? They came up with the idea of a Veteran’s Treatment Court. When Judge Russell said that at a first meeting, he was expecting people to boo him, instead one guys says, ‘Did I hear you correctly judge, you want to do a special court only for veterans?’ He says, ‘Yes,’ the guy says, ‘How can I volunteer, how can I help?’ That makes it work.

LEONARD SIPES: But the whole idea is everybody cooperates, everybody comes together for the good of the veteran, for the good of society. Melissa you got 30 seconds.

MELISSA FITZGERALD: 2008, Judge Russell saw an influx of veterans appearing before him, one in particular he didn’t think was responding as well as he should be in a mental health court. He asked one of his court staff, who was a veteran, to go talk to him in the hallway and find out what was going on. The next week that veteran returned into the courtroom at parade rest, clean shaven, looked the judge in the eye and said, ‘Yes sir, judge, no sir judge.’ That man graduated from the program and that was the impetus and the inspiration for Veteran’s Treatment Courts.

LEONARD SIPES: All three of you fascinating, I’d love to have you back for a future program, love to get those individuals who are caught up in the program, to provide their own personal testimony. Ladies and gentlemen we did a show today on Veteran’s Treatment Courts, by our microphones Greg Crawford from the National Institute of Corrections. Melissa Fitzgerald Senior Director of Justice for Vets, and Bernie Edelman, Deputy Director for Policy and Government Affairs for Vietnam Veterans.

BERNARD EDELMAN: Almost got it right.

LEONARD SIPES: What is it Bernie, Edelman. In any event,, my friends from New York are going to laugh, .gov, for the white paper, on the program ladies and gentlemen this is DC Public Safety, we appreciate your comments, we even appreciate your criticisms, and we want everybody to have themselves a very pleasant day.

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