Philadelphia Life: Veterans court gives a second chance to vets
PHILADELPHIA – Courtroom 1006 in the Criminal Justice Center is not an ordinary courtroom. Municipal Court Judge Patrick F. Dugan presides in front of large banner that says, “Philadelphia Treatment Court.” The flags of the United States Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, Navy and Coast Guard are to his right.
“We better not see any of you back here,” Dugan, 50, paternally said, pointing his finger at the crowd of defendants. “Remember we expect the best out of you because you are the best.”
The defendants in this courtroom are veterans suffering from substance abuse and emotional issues, often times because of their experiences in the military. The court offers treatments that cater to their specific needs.
On Dec. 10 the Philadelphia Veterans Court held their second graduation. The ceremony represents the veterans’ completion of treatment programs or therapy, and for many a criminal record wiped clean.
Marine Corp veteran, Natasha Cunningham, 28, a petite young woman with a radiant smile wearing a bright pink t-shirt and jeans bounced up to the microphone at the graduation.
“I want to thank the court,” she said. “It’s been another opportunity for me to show what I’m made of.”
Cunningham was arrested for simple assault after a fight with her boyfriend became violent. Before graduating from the Veterans Court program she completed therapy with the VA to find out why she would become violent during arguments with her boyfriend.
“It’s nice because here they continue to look at us like we are the best,” she said. “Being here almost made me want to re-sign my contract.”
Like other treatment courts the goal of Veterans Court is to have the records of the veterans expunged, to help them move past their substance abuse or emotional problems.
“We’re not giving out free passes here, we’re simply trying to put veterans in touch with services they are eligible for and didn’t always know about,” said Dugan, a captain in the Army Reserve who served in Iraq in 2004 and Afghanistan in 2006.
The program, which is about a year old, is a joint effort between the municipal court, the district attorney’s office, the public defender and the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
All parties work together to come up with the best plan for each veteran. Public defender Melissa Stango and assistant district attorney Guy Garant, a Marine Corps veteran, work closely to determine what kind of sentencing the veteran will receive.
“Sometimes it’s a diversion and their case is held open until they are finished treatment and other times it’s a probationary offer,” Stango said. “This is a conviction but instead of reporting to a probation officer they report to the VA and the judge at progress hearings.”
Garant said he makes his decision about sentencing offers on a case-by-case basis.
“It really depends on their previous criminal records,” he said of how he makes his decisions.“ We are also trying to look for people who will cooperate with treatment or what’s the point?”
Rebecca Hicks, 28, a social worker at the VA Medical Center is Philadelphia’s veterans justice outreach (VJO) specialist and is present at each weekly veterans court session.
VJO is a national Veterans Affairs initiative that officially began in June 2008. The initiative is designed to help eligible veterans receive the help they need through VA benefits. Every VA medical center in the country has at least one social worker appointed to this position.
During a Dec. 3 court session, that heard approximately 30 veterans cases in two and a half hours, Hicks sat quietly beside Stango and handed appointment cards to the veterans as they were officially accepted into the program. Hicks assesses every veteran participating in the program and refers them to the proper services they need for treatment.
“Rebecca is extremely important to the veterans court,” Dugan said. “Having the VA in the room is what makes this court different from other treatment courts. I want to get these cases sorted out as quickly as possible for [the veterans] and that helps.”
When Hicks assesses the veterans she is looking at everything from their mental and physical health to their employment status to where they live and what kinds of relationships they have.
“I get a full scope of who they are so I can refer them to the things they need at the VA,” she said.
Once she has made her recommendations her job is to make sure that the veterans are following through with their treatment plans.
“I feel very lucky because out of the team I’m really the only one that gets to see the veterans outside of the courtroom,” Hicks said. “I get to know them first hand and I get to see their lives change.”
Due to the large number of DUI and drug possession charges most of the veterans have a combination of therapy and substance abuse treatment.
“There’s a lot of underlying social issues for veterans in the justice system,” Hicks said.
Of the veterans Hicks deals with 39 percent are combat veterans, mostly from the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
“PTSD isn’t always there but it’s definitely prevalent and if the vet has been in a combat situation it’s likely that it is an underlying issue,” Dugan said.
Often times the veterans are also first time offenders as well as dealing with their emotional issues for the first time.
“Most of the time the first time offenders don’t really know what’s going on so they’re a little nervous,” said Garant.
Dugan can see this in the courtroom and tries to help by beginning every case by asking the defendants what branch of the military they served in, usually making a joke or two about the rivalries between the branches, and ends every case thanking the veteran for their service.
“Most defendants come into any kind of courtroom with a chip on their shoulder,” Dugan said. “By talking to them about their service I can connect with them. I want them to be able to relax in there.”
Another approach the veterans court program uses to make the veterans feel comfortable with both the treatment and criminal sides to their case is to provide mentors. The mentors must be veterans themselves and give moral support to the veterans in the program.
“If you were a pregnant woman you wouldn’t go ask a woman with no children for advice, you would ask the woman with four kids,” Albert El, 68, a mentor and Vietnam veteran said. “That’s what it’s like being a mentor – we know where they’ve been so we understand each other.”
El also acknowledged that part of being a mentor is making sure the veterans stick with their treatment plans.
“Some of them don’t know they’re being blessed with this opportunity,” he said. “I try to help them see that.”
It is important that the veterans maintain their programs and graduate – Veterans Court is meant to work like a diversion program, especially for first time offenders.
Veterans court coordinator, Janet Ditomasso, who runs the mentor program and organizes the court, says it can be emotional watching the veterans graduate from the program.
“It’s heartwarming because you can really see the pride coming right back out of them,” she said.
At the graduation each veteran receives a certificate of completion and a military coin with the veterans court emblem on the front. Each of Dec. 10’s graduate stepped up to the microphone with a smile and said a few words about how the court reminded them of the person they were before they were arrested – when they served their country.
“Whether they were serving in Vietnam or North Dakota, they put their lives on the line,” Dugan said. “They’re the best the nation has and I expect a lot from them because I know they have it in them.”
Seeing the previous criminal records of some of the veterans she works with Stango said it’s nice to finally see the veterans’ service being recognized.
“We have a lot of older clients that aren’t first time offenders and they have gone all these years without getting treatment,” she said. “It’s really nice to see them now having all these VA benefits made available to them.”