For Some Veterans, Court Program Replaces Prison With Treatment

Nov 12, 2015

Veterans’ justice programs are popping up all over the country, and just last year, New Hampshire got its first one, in Nashua. These alternative justice programs are courts that allow veterans to get a handle on problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and alcohol or drug abuse that put them at odds with the law.

Twenty-five year old former airman Dominiq Russell sits on a bench at the 9th Circuit Court in Nashua. He’s skinny and tall and his hair is close-cropped. It's so short you can see a long scar in back of his head where, a few years ago, doctors inserted a metal plate. A car accident years ago left him with a traumatic brain injury. He walks forward when Judge James Leary calls his name.

"All right, let’s go back and refocus where we are, all right, Dominiq? Why are you here? Why are you here today?" Leary asks. 

Russell tells the judge he’s doing this because he wants to get his life back on track.

"And what happens if you don’t?" Leary asks.

"Go to jail for six months," Russell says. 

Russell was caught with a bag of marijuana in his car. He says it belonged to his friend. After he was arrested, a veterans’ justice coordinator from the VA hospital in Manchester worked out an agreement. If Russell followed a treatment plan, he’d avoid a six month prison sentence.

He was supposed to check in with the VA, but he skipped the last appointment. He missed a ride and couldn’t walk there, he says, because there’s a metal rod in his leg, also from that car accident. Judge Leary looks at him skeptically.

"This was not imposed on you," he says to Russell. "This was your choice, to enter the program. You have so many excuses for everything, and you’re not complying with the treatment plan. You’re just not."

Russell says he forgets things because of his TBI and that’s partly why he’s having trouble. In the end, Leary sanctions Russell with eight hours of community service.

"You can get that done in a week, eight hours," Leary says.

This is how the veterans’ court works: Follow a special treatment plan, and you get a second chance. If you don’t, you get sanctioned, or you get booted from the program, and stiff penalties kick in.

On this day, Russell was the exception. All the other veterans gave good progress updates. To those veterans, Leary said: That’s great news, keep up the good work, see you next week.

Right now there are 13 veterans in the program in Nashua. Three more are about to start, three have graduated, and two were removed due to violations. Lebanon also has a veterans’ court in place.

Such special courts aren’t new in the state. Mental health and drug courts have been around for a few years. Before New Hampshire’s first veterans’ court started in Nashua last year, Judge Leary says he thought the mental health court could handle the veterans, too. But, over time, Leary says he realized veterans aren’t like civilians.

"They commonly have post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s something that’s diagnosed in the general population as well, but it’s a greater percentage of people involved," Leary says. 

The VA estimates that up to 20 percent of veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD or major depression. But unlike civilians, veterans can go to VA hospitals for treatment.

"If there isn’t a treatment for it at the VA, we won’t accept it," says Diane Levesque, court liaison at the VA in Manchester. She was standing beside Dominiq Russell when he appeared before the judge. She says it’s hard to spell out a list of what crimes could be dealt with in veterans’ court and which ones can’t. It’s easy to rule out serious like murder, for example.

"If I know, for instance, that it’s going to end up in a long-term incarceration, no matter what interventions are made, then I can’t afford to spend the time, unfortunately," Levesque says. 

But there’s a gray area. Crimes like disorderly conduct, assault, driving while intoxicated, or drug possession might be okay, especially if the root problem is PTSD or TBI. Once they’re in the court, Levesque says, it’s a great way to provide structure and supervision to people who may really need it to thrive.

"It’s very easy when you’re on your own and nobody really cares to drop out of sight and not move forward with your treatment," Levesque says. 

The first veterans’ court in the country began in Buffalo, New York in 2008. Since then they’ve expanded to nearly every state, serving 11,000 veterans.

They’re expanding in New Hampshire, too. A group of veterans’ advocates is laying the foundation for a similar program in the North Country. Dave Canter is one of those advocates. He says the challenge in Coos County is identifying the veterans who need the court.

"It’s hard to justify a docket if you don’t know that you have four or five currently in the system," Canter says. 

Distance and scheduling are other obstacles to setting up the Coos veterans’ court. The justice outreach coordinator—the Diane Levesque of the North Country—would be based at the White River Junction, Vermont VA hospital, an hour and a half away.

A week after the court sanctioned him, Russell had a run-in with the police outside a dance club in Manchester. He was arrested for disorderly conduct. When he was released, he checked into the psych ward at the VA hospital in Bedford, Massachusetts.

Russell says the court should have handled his case differently. "They should have honestly just listened to me rather than getting mad at me for forgetting things," he says. "They should have been nicer to me, more understanding of me."

It’s unclear whether the veterans’ court can help Russell now. He says he doesn’t think it can. Diane Levesque declined to comment on Russell’s case, and says she’s not an expert on TBI.

A public affairs official with the Manchester VA says the hospital understands that it’s tough for some to understand that this "tough love" stance is necessary.

What is clear is that for some veterans, the court is a second chance at staying on the right side of the law and getting their behavioral issues under control. What they do with that second chance is up to them.