U.S. Veterans Treatment Court takes new approach to handling troubled vets

U.S. court experiments with new way of handling military veterans who are mentally troubled or addicted and run afoul of the law.

Special tribunals held to sentence, support veterans with mental and addiction issues

Convicts don’t have it easy in Judge William Furber’s Montgomery County Veterans Treatment Court, they’re simply treated with compassion for their addictions or mental issues, and given a good dose of discipline.

On most days, Judge William Furber’s courtroom in Norristown, Penn., looks like any other. Long hardwood benches for observers, heavyset desks for the lawyers and their clients.

But once a week, the judge presides over a courtroom full of soldiers, ex-combatants, and the proceedings are remarkable.

    Judge Furber might start a court hearing with some probing questions for the accused. Who did he visit last week? How is his relationship with his son?

    Other courts might find such details immaterial. But in Justice Furber’s Montgomery County Veterans Treatment Court, they are key - he is dealing, after all, with alcoholics and addicts.

    Once a week, Judge William Furber’s courtroom in Norristown, Penn., deals with veterans from conflicts such as Afghanistan and Iraq. They're soldiers with addiction and mental issues who have run afoul of the law, and who are benefiting from a new approach to sentencing. (CBC)
    "If we learn that someone is having a difficult time with a son or a daughter," the judge told CBC News, "and that is causing him to want to drink again to relieve the stress, we then try to confront those feelings and try to head any difficulty off at the pass."

    Not all ex-military are welcomed into these special tribunals. Those accused of violent crime, for one, are not considered.

    Those who are given the opportunity must plead guilty and be genuinely contrite. The accused must also be suffering from substance abuse and/or mental problems such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

    Convicts don’t have it easy in this court, Judge Furber argues, they’re simply treated with compassion and a good dose of discipline.

    "People have to realize that it was their participation in the military, but especially for those who served in combat, that caused them the difficulties they are experiencing. That is why, I think, we owe them something."

    Treating the scars

    The approach has proven benefits, and it is gaining popularity as the country winds down from two long wars. There are now more than 100 of these courts across the U.S.

    Alex To, a 29-year-old who spent more than a year in Iraq, was drinking heavily and in legal trouble when the veterans court identified him as a candidate for its program. (CBC)
    The idea started back in 2008, when the city of Buffalo noticed a significant rise in the number of former U.S. soldiers turning to crime. They were ex-combatants who’d returned home wearing scars, carrying the mental anguish from their tours in Iraq and/or Afghanistan.  

    Most who ended up before a Judge in a Buffalo courtroom shared similar stories, as well as a crippling dependence on drugs or alcohol.

    Buffalo’s legal system found a way to help them stay clean while they paid for their crimes. Those who relapse are sanctioned. A weekend in jail or some community service isn’t meant to punish, but to motivate them, Justice Furber says.

    "We also have to recognize the fact that relapse is part of this process," he says. "For some of them, it would be unrealistic for us to believe that there will never be a time when they relapse or cross the line."

    Alex To, a 29-year-old who spent more than a year in Iraq, is now a member of this exclusive club. Back from duty, he used to drink most nights.

    "It was probably eight to 10 drinks a night. I was a liquor person. It sounds like a lot, but it wasn’t a lot for me. It wasn’t anything weird to me."

    Weekly check-in

    Being admitted to the program means avoiding hard time in prison. But it also means weekly appearances before a judge, following a prescribed detox program, staying away from places that serve alcohol, and not leaving town without first obtaining permission.

    Chuck Sluzenski, 27, came home from a tour in Iraq with PTSD, stared drinking heavily and got into trouble. "If I didn’t go to Vets Court, I probably wouldn’t be here. [I’d be] six feet under," he says. (CBC)
    The slightest lapse will land them back behind bars.

    Each convict is also assigned a mentor, an ex-combatant who will help guide them.

    In fact, virtually everyone involved in this program has, or has had, close ties with the military. And that’s the way they want it - hoping their shared experiences will help heal, collectively, the invisible scars of combat.

    It’s been three years since the program was started in Norristown, and by all accounts it’s been deemed a success.  The troubled youths are staying clean for the most part, and the financial benefit to the community of not having to incarcerate them during rehabilitation is significant. The county estimates it saved half a million dollars in 2013 alone.

    But the real pay-off for 27-year-old Chuck Sluzenski is difficult to measure or quantify. He came home from a tour in Iraq with PTSD. He drank heavily. He self-medicated, as they say. And it wasn’t long before he got into trouble.

    "If I didn’t go to Vets Court, I probably wouldn’t be here. [I’d be] six feet under … that is the path I was going on."

    In their own words

    Click on the images below to hear Judge William Furber and participants in the Veterans Treatment Court describe how they got involved and what the program means to them.

    Alex To was never injured physically during his one-year tour in Iraq in 2006. Back home, he drank heavily for months until he got arrested and jailed. He should graduate from the Veterans Treatment Court before the end of the year and is hoping to start a career as a healthcare consultant. "It is a big step to be sober."

    Mark Medevsky (right) is an attorney who spent many years in the military. He volunteers at the Treatment Courts to guide younger soldiers. He believes his military background helped him relate to Alex Turner, a reserved and quiet young man whom he mentors. "We ate the same crummy food."

    Alex Turner spent a year in Iraq and another one in South Korea before returning home in the summer of 2011. A year later, he was arrested for drinking and assaulting a police officer. He first saw his mentor because the court forced him to. "It is like having a brother you didn't know about."

    Chuck Sluzenski conducted night raids to find targets during his tour in Iraq. He came back with undiagnosed PTSD and drank heavily every day. He was the first admitted to the Montgomery Veterans Treatment Court. He has now completed the program but comes back to court once in a while to check on his friends. "They kept pushing me to keep going and not to fall back."

    Justice William J. Furber is a former marine who remembers the discipline and camaraderie that make up the daily life in the military. He finds the Treatment Court rewarding for him as well because it allows him to see the positive impact of the judicial system on some accused. "I see a completely different person. And I get to see that with my own eyes. I don't have to guess."

    Translation by Bruce Edwards


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