BUFFALO, New York (Reuters) - From the minute Judge Robert Russell walks into Buffalo Veterans Court, it is clear this is no ordinary courtroom.
“Hello everybody,” the judge says.
“Good afternoon, Judge,” everyone replies in unison.
The first defendant steps forward, and Russell asks him what branch of the military he served in.
“Navy, sir,” he says, and the room bursts into applause.
Buffalo’s Veterans Court, the first of its kind when it began three years ago, has proven so successful it is a model for the 46 such courts that have sprung up since in 20 states, largely to address the needs of veterans returning home from Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam.
Among the most recent, a veterans’ court was started less than a month ago in New York City.
So successful is Buffalo’s Veterans Court that it boasts a zero recidivism rate — none of the participants have been rearrested and returned.
Specialized courts for drugs, alcohol, domestic violence, gambling and other issues have existed for years. But this concept — akin to a rehabilitation program blended with legal consequences — focuses on issues associated with U.S. veterans who often suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, brain trauma or chemical dependency.
All the defendants in the Buffalo courtroom are veterans. By agreeing to treatment and rehabilitation, they avoid jail for the crimes that landed them in the court system.
The program aims to create a therapeutic environment that fosters rehabilitation, “so my style is somewhat paternal and somewhat empathetic,” Russell said.
One success story is Manuel Welch, 53, a veteran of the U.S. Navy who grappled for decades with drug and alcohol abuse and addiction and made numerous trips in and out of the city court system.
He is one of 51 former servicemen to graduate from Russell’s court, avoiding jail time for a string of petit larceny, cocaine possession and other crimes.
After a 12-step program, counseling and drug and alcohol testing, not only is he clean and sober but he has become a mentor to other program participants. He credits the Veterans Court with his recovery.
“The thing that did it for me is they never give up on you,” Welch said.
City Court Judge Joseph Cassatta, who runs specialty courts addressing mental health and drug addiction in nearby Tonawanda, said returning soldiers can have severe emotional problems that lead to criminal behavior. Instead of focusing on punishment, he said, a veterans’ court is concerned with addressing the cause and attempting to resolve it.
“You rehabilitate instead of incarcerate,” he said.
Some 180 cases are moving forward through Russell’s court, though the program has seen its share of dropouts.
Tom Burke, president of the Ohio chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America, has been looking at the Buffalo court with the idea of starting one in his area.
Of Ohio’s 41 VVA chapters, nine of them — about 350 people — are made up entirely of incarcerated veterans, he said.
“We have a need for it here, for the guys who are coming back,” he said. “We’re starting to see the Iraq and Afghanistan guys show up in the system.”
There are 1.7 million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
But with the popularity of Buffalo’s pioneering court model has come controversy. Allen Lichtenstein of the Nevada ACLU said his group objects to such laws if they give too much discretion to district attorneys as to choosing who is eligible or move toward establishing what are in effect two separate systems of justice.
“We don’t have a particular problem with veterans, when they’ve been through certain things, having special needs. I think the opposition is instead of having two separate systems.”
“Where does it end? Do we then have courts where police are treated because of a certain status?”
But Russell, Cassatta and others who deal with veterans on a daily basis say the success is there for all to see.
It costs taxpayers about $32,000 per year to hold a prisoner at the county jail, they note.
“We can clean them up for a ballpark figure of $7,000 or less. We’re saving our taxpayers and more importantly we’re saving our families and we’re saving our community,” Cassatta said.
Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Jerry Norton