Our support for specialty courts is well-documented (as previously discussed here and here), so we were pleased when Chief Justice Paula Carey invited us to attend the launch of Suffolk County’s first Veterans Treatment Court, to be housed in the Boston Municipal Court (BMC), last week. Designed to assist combat veterans through rehabilitation programs and the criminal justice system, the Veterans Treatment Court drove home for us the unique set of needs this population has that cannot simply be shuffled into other court sessions. A veteran’s transition to civil life after service can be complicated and require a more holistic approach — which is exactly what Boston’s Veterans Treatment Court seeks to achieve.
Massachusetts opened its first Veterans Treatment Court in Dedham in 2012, but the BMC’s Veterans Treatment Court is the first of its kind in Boston. There was an overwhelming turnout for the launch of the session. What’s more, the crowd represented myriad areas of the government and legal system. The conference speakers alone included Chief Justice Paula Carey, Veterans Treatment Court Presiding Judge Eleanor Sinnott, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, and Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley. It was encouraging to see so many come out to support those who have served our country and now need our support.
During the brief conference for the official launch, we learned a number of startling and alarming facts. For instance, did you know that one out of ten veterans are homeless, and that 33% of the entire homeless population are veterans? Veterans also have a greater risk of suicide and untreated mental illnesses. Perhaps most telling: many service members do not have a criminal history prior to their deployment. The stresses inherent in military service can cause residual psychological trauma, which can cause mental health or substance abuse issues and, in turn, criminal infractions such as assault or operating a vehicle under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In other words, while the crimes they commit may be the direct result of mental illness or substance abuse, the underlying cause is far more serious. As the pre-session conference outlined, the goal of the court is to get straight to the root and ameliorate those underlying causes.
We had the chance to see firsthand how the court session would work. Presiding Judge Sinnott was compassionate and supportive, focusing on understanding each participant’s individual situation and making treatment recommendations based on their statements. The participants stayed through the end of the session so that they could have the chance to meet with those offering rehabilitative services.
While the Veterans Treatment Court embraces empathy, it sets high standards and does not excuse unacceptable behavior. Session participants will come to court once a week to report on their progress in the various treatment options, and there are repercussions for those unwilling to comply with the session’s expectations – including expulsion from the program.
The combination of personal care and intense probation is one we applaud. Instead of being tough on crime, Boston’s Veterans Treatment Court works to be smart on crime. As Chief Justice Carey explained, this court could be the difference between a new life and incarceration for life. Less than one percent of our nation’s population has shouldered the burden for all; we must do our part to make sure they don’t fall through the cracks in the justice system.