As the political season gets in full swing, veterans issues have become a central talking point. Everybody loves veterans, but medical care, veterans’ courts, spousal benefits, and education cost money. With sequestration modification apparently off the table, it will be hard for Congress to keep expanding benefits. But what everyone knows is also what few […]
All Rise is an in-depth series that examines the rising trend of Veteran Treatment Courts (VTCs), which focus on rehabilitation over incarceration. Veteran Journal attended the first annual Veteran Treatment Court Conference, a gathering of veterans and court professionals held in Washington D.C. December 2-5, 2013.
In July 2011, David B. Muhlhausen, Ph.D. and Research Fellow in Empirical Policy Analysis from The Heritage Foundation delivered testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee about the effectiveness of drug treatment courts, specifically with a focus on veterans. Dr. Muhlhausen told the committee, “Congress should consider reforming the [Drug Court Discretionary Grant program] to focus entirely on reimbursing state and local drug courts that serve recently returned combat veterans.” In his testimony, he discussed numerous empirical studies (55 in all) that evaluated the effectiveness of drug courts for civilians, which have been around for almost 20 years. Yet, since veteran treatment courts have only been around since 2008, there simply hadn’t been enough time to publish the kind of study that would empirically prove that VTCs work.
In light of the above, the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) and the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts asked P. Karen Blackburn and Dr. Fred Cheeseman to lead a study of the 13 separate VTCs from the seven longest-running programs. Cheeseman, a man of average height with long brown hair hanging past his chin and a smile so big it’s funny (considering his last name is pronounced “Cheese Man”), spoke about his findings at the Vet Court Con. Other than his long hair and grin, he dressed like a stereotypical professor in a tweed suit, somewhat rumpled, although, he would be spotted after-hours wearing jeans, heavy boots, and a black-leather motorcycle jacket looking more like a band’s road manager than Principal Court Research Consultant with the NCSC.
According to Cheeseman, those who run VTCs may need “to decide [whether they] are treatment courts or [they] are courts for vets.” The conundrum came to him when he watched offender after offender standing at parade rest before the judge while speaking respectfully, a scene that made him think, “these are not drug courts.” He didn’t elaborate, but one might guess civilian drug court offenders lack that military bearing. Karen Blackburn, Program Administration for Pennsylvania Problem Solving Courts and Dr. Cheeesman’s co-presenter, explained that this study was the first time that the effectiveness of any problem-solving court was viewed through the lens of the population (e.g. veterans) rather than the offense.
One component of VTCs is the assigned veteran mentor who is paired with the offender to help him or her through the program. Many think of these mentors as being akin to a sponsor in a 12-step program, but it’s not addiction that mentors have in common with the offenders, it’s the military. Eric Gonzales, a Marine and a VTC graduate, compares them to Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs), instead. They motivate, he says, if only because the offender doesn’t want to “let them down.” Dr. Cheeseman findings question whether mentors are necessarily for a [VTC] to work. His study found that “Some participants love them, others do not see the value, and some are antithetical – one size may not fit all.” According to his research, the problem may be as much with the mentors and the structure as with the offender.
Mentor roles, assignments, instructions and supervision vary widely from court to court and sometimes from individual to individual. Some courts view mentors as “extra support” rather than key components of the community gathered to address the offender’s personal issues. Qualifications to become a mentor, mentor support and supervision and clearly defined roles all contribute to the wide variance in their effectiveness. Even the critical role of matching a mentor with an offender lacks clear guidelines, potentially resulting in a mismatch that does little if any good in guiding the offender down a more productive path.
Mentors are the single most significant distinction between drug treatment courts and veteran treatment courts. They are forging their own path through a pristine field with no direction other than seeing their veteran safely through to the other side. At the conference, Cheeseman found strong supporters for the mentor program, despite its current fallibility.
Court administrators, judges, and veteran mentors agree that mentors positively affect veterans in trouble. Judge Robert Russell, who founded the first veteran court in Buffalo, NY, told Veteran Journal there wouldn’t be a veterans’ court if not for those first veteran mentors who helped him get the program off-the-ground. Certainly there are lessons to be learned going forward to make the mentor programs and the individuals within them more effective. The first annual Veterans Mentor Bootcamp held at the convention is a leap forward. No one, however, disagrees with one statement heard from the audience. The bond between combat veterans “is a bond unlike anything else.” When you are trying to find your way out of the fire, the hand reaching for you matters.
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Image courtesy of Justice for Vets.
(c) 2013 – Veteran Journal. All Rights Reserved.