“It’s too easy to incarcerate someone,” says Judge on US veterans facing prison

U.S. Is World's Leading Jailer

Leading the world in both incarceration rate and total prison population are reasons America cannot pretend to be the country most dedicated to liberty.

We’re not and waving a flag will not disconfirm this fact.

Fortunately, the contradictions apparent as we begin to warehouse our veterans in prison are becoming too much for the political system to sustain.

One hopes the trend towards alternatives to incarceration of our veterans leads to policies reversing America’s peculiar imbecility in taking away its citizens’ liberties.

It’s too easy to incarcerate someone,” says Judge Russell on US veterans facing prison

By Marco Giannangeli in Buffalo, New York

FROM the moment Judge Robert T Russell calls out a friendly hello and shakes hands with officials on his way to the bench it is clear this is a very different kind of court.

Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court in New York state deals sympathetically with old soldiers and their families who fall foul of the law. As its title suggests, this is more crime and counselling than crime and punishment.

Judge Russell has had more than 300 ­veterans appear before him since the breakthrough programme launched in 2008.

Reoffending rates are zero, compared with 65 per cent for the regular justice system, and all at just eight per cent of what it would cost to put a veteran in jail.

So successful is the scheme that it has been adopted in more than 40 states across the USA, and more are applying.

With recent figures suggesting that one in 10 inmates in British jails is a former soldier, it is an idea the Howard League for Penal Reform will consider seriously for the UK when it visits the court in October.

Buffalo, 20 minutes from Niagara Falls, was once a prosperous city at the heart of America’s Rust Belt and home to the world’s largest steel-making operation. Those days are gone, and the city, which has seen its population fall from 600,000 to fewer than 300,000, is fighting a desperate battle against 7.6 per cent unemployment.

Judge Russell, who has served more than 20 years on the bench, began to notice in 2006 an increasing number of veterans passing through the drugs and mental health courts he already ran.

“I would see veterans in these other courts and many did not seem to fit,” he told the ­Sunday Express. “I remember a particular veteran, in my mental health court, and he was not doing well. His shoulders were always slumped, he was not responsive, and his head was always down.“I knew that a member of my court was also a veteran and I put them together.

“When they came back from a short meeting I saw straightaway that the veteran’s behaviour had totally changed. He stood erect, gave more open responses.

“I thought it was very interesting that even the briefest meeting with another vet could have had this effect. So we discussed setting aside a day just for veterans. It was a unique idea.”

Referring to Prince Harry’s recent visit to New York, he added: “We all saw how the Prince was able to relate with American soldiers and veterans in a way no civilian could.

“There is an unspoken bond between those who have served in any country. We thought that if we could have a court with nothing but veterans, they could begin to help each other with recovery.”

Success involved breaking down many barriers. The most challenging, according to Judge Russell, was persuading the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide a federal official to sit in a state court, with a computer to access records and entitlements.

Boundaries are strict. The court does not deal with crimes involving loss of life, ­discharging a loaded firearm or sexual abuse. Veterans are only eligible if they are diagnosed with a clinical condition, such as post traumatic stress disorder, and if there is no strong objection from a victim.

The foundation to the court’s success is its 45 volunteer mentors, ranging from police detectives to social workers, who have all served in the military and many of whom have seen action in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We’ve learnt many lessons over the past couple of years about selecting mentors,” said Jack O’Connor, a former social worker and Vietnam vet who heads the team.

“We don’t need Vietnam veterans. The men and women today need young people of their own generation who they can relate to.

“Also, a third of our mentors are now women. That happened when we discovered that a female soldier who we thought had been doing very well with us had actually been raped in Iraq. We only found this out 10 months after she came to us, because the local air force base sent a female staff ­sergeant to help out.

“They were only together for a few ­minutes and she told her everything. I was the last person this young woman would tell about the rape, because I was a man and reminded her of who attacked her.”

Crimes range from domestic abuse to threatening behaviour, public violence and drink/drug driving. Judge Russell said: “We had a case where both parents were serving in Iraq and the children went wild and that is when we realised that family members should also benefit from this system.”

When Brian O’Brien, 27, left the US Army he joined a sheriff’s department in Arizona and was promoted to deputy. He said: “I didn’t realise then that the qualities that drove me to succeed, the toughness and ­violence that the job required, were throwbacks from the aggression I had inside me since Iraq. A lot of my friends died there.”

Despite never having taken drugs, he found that access to local dealers made it easy to obtain Class A drugs, and he became addicted. “I was soon smoking crystal meths just to get by,” he confessed.

When O’Brien crashed his car, he was found to be high on drugs.

“I was thrown off the force and arrested. Luckily the folks here in Buffalo fought to have my case transferred to the veterans court. It saved my life.”

After a two-year rehabilitation programme, his charge will be either withdrawn by the District Attorney or reduced to a lesser ­misdemeanour.

Some civil liberties campaigners have been hesitant to give the ­programme their full approval, saying it offers unfair advantages, but Judge Russell rejects this.

“Of course there will always be opportunists, but you have to remember that the road to treatment here is pretty hard,” he said. “Each defendant has to see me, ­personally, every two weeks for a progress report on how they are doing.

“In my experience, anyone faking will soon be asking to be put back in the normal system rather than face two years of intense rehabilitation and counselling.”
Veterans are offered jobs and the court has even “shamed” local universities in to dropping tuition fees for those who complete their treatment.

“It’s too easy to incarcerate someone,” said Judge Russell. “The challenge is to find the trigger that makes them reflect about their own lives and get back on track.

“That’s a service to the individual, his ­family and his community.

“It reduces prison costs and even makes him a productive and tax-paying member of society.”


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