For the four years that Manuel Welch, charged with assorted felonies and misdemeanors, lingered on the docket of a Buffalo, N.Y. drug court, he largely failed to follow the rules.
“I felt like all the drug court judge really wanted to do was send you to jail for the slightest infraction,” U.S. Navy veteran Welch said.
The drug court, like many similar ones around the country, was aimed at keeping substance abusers and addicts out of prison, but “they didn’t seem interested in helping me get well, and didn’t seem to care about my personal story, my hardships,” said Welch, now 58, a former drug addict and alcoholic, who, in 1992, was diagnosed with military service-related post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD], depression and anxiety.
“And I have to admit that I didn’t go along with the program. Whatever I was supposed to do, I didn’t do.”
By 2004, the year Welch first landed in drug court, he’d been arrested for a series of offenses, including shoplifting, burglary and assaults—crimes he committed, he says, to finance a cocaine addiction that, in turn, was his way of self-medicating the mental illnesses.
At the time, he’d opted—foolishly, he conceded—against being treated by psychiatrists and other mental health clinicians.
What finally turned his life around, he said, was having his criminal case shifted in 2008—the last year he was arrested for drug-related crimes—from drug court to the then brand-new Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court.
From Day 1 until his graduation 12 months later from the Buffalo program, he felt understood. He felt a kinship with other vets who were defendants or who had volunteered to mentor defendants.
He was particularly impressed by the empathy social workers, the judge and other court officials displayed toward those who had served their country in battle or defended it during peacetime, he said.
“We come in there with charges that can carry hefty [prison] sentences,” said Welch, now a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs peer specialist, counseling and steering other troubled veterans.
“But the judge, the mentors, everyone in veterans court, makes you feel proud to be a veteran. They thank you for your service. So, my whole mindset changed.”
He continued: “Every time I went to veterans court, they asked me how I was doing: ‘What do you need?’ They got to know my wife. There was a camaraderie that simply did not exist in drug court. The veterans in veterans court had been where I’d been, they’d seen what I’d seen. They knew who I was.”
The Buffalo veterans court was the nation’s first. Since it was launched in 2008, roughly 230 additional veterans-only treatment courts have been established in 34 states, according to Justice for Vets, the Alexandria, Va.-based organization that has helped standardize practices and train professionals working in veterans courts and, through its National Association of Drug Court Professionals, those in drug courts, too.
[Across the nation, there are also more than 300 mental health treatment courts for adults and for juveniles.]
Veterans courts, along with a relatively small but growing tally of jail- and prison-based programs for incarcerated veterans, including those providing mental and behavioral health care, are part of a broad strategy to serve criminally accused ex-military personnel, especially non-violent offenders, and to either divert them from incarceration or shorten their period of incarceration.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics’ latest available figures, from 2004, 10 percent of those confined to state and federal prisons were veterans.
Before serving in the military, the bulk of those criminally charged veterans had never been officially accused of committing a criminal act, observers said.
“These courts are not going to work 100 percent of the time for all the veterans whose cases wind up there,” said Fulton County [Ga.] Superior Court Judge Todd Markle, who oversees a veterans court in Atlanta, founded in 2013 as the first such court in Georgia. He estimates that half of the veteran defendants in his court have been diagnosed with mental illness.
“But,” Markle added, “the reduction of rates of recidivism for this group are dramatic … Many of these veterans had been relatively highly functioning [before their military service]. In an era of multiple deployments, of rising rates of PTSD … and of some veterans layering drug abuse on top of their mental illness, the work of veterans courts is critical.”
Licensed professional counselor Marla Patterson, mental health coordinator for Fulton County’s veterans, drug and mental health courts, called “accountability courts,” said, “We recognize when folks are adhering to the rigors of the program, when they are taking their meds and when they’re not. We try to catch them when they’re slipping.”
While the rules of conventional courts are comparatively rigorous, veterans courts allow for some flexibility. Generally, such courts mandate mental health and behavioral counseling, regular tests to guard against illicit drug use, adherence to prescribed anti-psychotic or other mental health meds, appointments kept with probation and other law enforcement officials, job training, educational enrollment, and periodic monitoring to ensure the veteran has stable housing.
Veterans must account for their progress—or lack of it—in those areas when they show up in courts such as the one in Buffalo, which meets the first and third Tuesday of each month. Its youngest veterans served in recent and current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
‘I’m Still Staying Clean’
“I’m still staying clean, your honor,” Charles Johnson, told Judge Robert Russell, founder of Buffalo’s veterans court and, with his staff, a sought-after trainer of treatment court professionals, during an afternoon session in September 2015.
“I’m still taking my meds. I’m still going to my PTSD group. Just handling my business, your honor, and trying to get there.”
Noting that the day also marked Johnson’s 66th birthday, Russell solicited a round of applause and well wishes from a courtroom filled with veterans, their relatives, corrections officers, prosecutors, paralegals and others.
That afternoon, the judge also acknowledged the handful of veterans who’d met the court’s requirements, and were graduating and moving on, hopefully, without committing another crime: “Ladies and gentlemen, give a nice salute to Mr. Sherrod.”
There was a standing ovation. Russell left his judge’s chair to embrace Maurice Sherrod and shake his hand.
“Well, it wasn’t easy,” Sherrod told the Russell and the packed courtroom. “And I have a long way to go. With the court’s help, I know I’m on my way.”
He reflected further, mainly addressing the other veteran defendants: “The first day I came to veterans court, the judge smiled at me and I started looking around to see if I was in the wrong place. But I finally got over it …
“The biggest thing is to stay on your medication. And take everything one day at a time.”
Then, Russell offered what has become his constant refrain: “On your journey, we talk about working closely with our counselors … and about treatment … and about always being mindful of people, places and things. The places we go, the company we keep.”
Russell, who is not a military veteran, is known for his aplomb in court, for granting second, third and fourth chances to those who fail certain court requirements, but also for dealing with veterans who, excessively flout the court’s prescribed regimen for them.
Some veterans do return to court under police escort, shackled and in county jail-issued detainee uniforms.
“What’s going on is such a delicate balancing act, juggling what the court needs and what the person really needs,” said Barry Chapman, a Veterans Affairs social worker who is assigned to the Buffalo court. “That’s part of what makes this so effective.”
Chapman estimates that 75 percent of veteran defendants in Judge Russell’s court have a mental health diagnosis.
For his part, Russell presides exclusively over Buffalo’s drug, mental health and veterans courts. That’s his way, he said, of better serving a safety-minded public but also the criminally accused. He’d rather not habitually, reflexively, lock people up, least of all the mentally ill, addicts and veterans.
[Editors Note: Judge Russell described his work on the Buffalo Court during the 2011 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America. For a podcast of his panel, please click here and go to podcasts for Panel #2.]
Even after veterans graduate from Russell’s court—most do so within18 months to two years, officials said—some grads return to crime.
But their rates of recidivism are much lower than for the general population of felons, said Jack O’Connor, volunteer mentor coordinator for the Buffalo court and a national trainer for the Justice for Vets Mentor Corps Boot Camp. Nationally, about 75 percent of all convicted persons return to crime within three years of being released from prison.
But among veterans who graduated from the Buffalo court, just 8.75 percent commit another crime within two years of graduating, O’Connor, also a veteran, said.
Another veteran, Patrick Welch, who isn’t related to Manuel, the veterans court grad mentioned at the top of this article, is a senior mentor for the Buffalo court.
“The dynamic that we have seen developed in our court and in other courts is similar to that of the military,” said Patrick, who previously taught a course on military culture at Daemen College in Amherst, NY.
“If you are in a unit,” he added, “with a good company commander and good non-commissioned officers … the junior enlisted ranks will march through the gates of hell for them … In court, the judge becomes the commanding officer.”
He continued: “The mentors become the NCOs and the staff, NCOs, leading the junior enlisted, the veterans. You see the veterans go to parade rest, chest out, hands behind their backs, looking the judge right in the eye, saying ‘yes, sir’ or ‘no, sir.’ Those people who are participants in the court get to the point of knowing that the judge and we mentors really care about them.
“They, therefore, mainly do not want to disappoint us.”
More Effective Than Drug Courts?
While it is probably too soon to accurately assess recidivism and the overall quality of veterans lives after graduating from veterans courts, given their relative newness, the anecdotal evidence suggests veterans courts will outshine drug courts, which began operating more than 20 years ago, according to Chris Deutsch, who is communications director for both Justice for Vets and the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.
“We’re going to see these [veterans] courts exceed the effectiveness of drugs courts in several different ways,” Deutsch said. “When you look at cost-saving, most veterans go to VA for treatment, so that removes a huge community costs for treatment that we don’t have with drug courts.
“Also, the veterans treatment court, plain and simple, is different from any other court you go to. The structure appeals to veterans who are used to being in a structured environment. They buy in a lot faster to the process.”
Veteran David Ridgeway, 30, hit Army boot camp three weeks after graduating from high school in Buffalo. During two separate tours in Iraq he spent “a total of 27 months.”
“The way of life, the heat, us wearing all that gear in that heat. It’s unreal,” Ridgeway said. ” … Just the not-knowing, but going out every day and clearing the way, looking for IEDs, improvised explosive devises … ”
He wears a pewter bracelet engraved with “Staff Sgt. Stephen A. Seale, Sgt. Carlton A. Clark, Cpl. Jose Zamora,” buddies who were killed on Aug. 6, 2006 in Baghdad. Two high school pals, Ben Schuster and William Mason III, also died in Iraq. “I called home one day and my sister was just hysterical: Ben died …”
He returned home in August 2010. Shortly afterward, he was charged with reckless endangerment. Driving and approaching a Buffalo freeway overpass one day, he had a flashback: “In Iraq, whenever you came to a bridge … in that Humvee, you put the pedal to the medal and just go, hoping you’d dodge a sniper or bomb or whatever. What I remember the night of my accident was driving fast. They say I was doing 99. I lost control of the vehicle … I hit a guy. Thank God, he wasn’t hurt.”
Ridgeway has PTSD—”They say it never goes away, that I just have to learn to deal with it”— takes Prozac to combat depression, Marzipan for the anxiety and a sleeping pill to quell his insomnia. Among other mandates, he attends group therapy at the VA three times a week.
“It was definitely a blessing that I made it into veterans court,” Ridgeway said. “But I’m still trying to figure out what’s going on … Not to be hard-beaded, but it’s hard for me to get to group. I have a [donated] bus pass. But just being on the bus with groups of people, that’s a struggle.
“I go to Walmart at three in the morning to avoid the fast pace of people. Iraq changes you. A part of you, you leave other … But I do have hope. I have no choice except to have hope.”
For VA counselor Welch, veterans court forced him to address his mental illnesses, which he considers a major achievement. He has linked his PTSD, depression and anxiety to what he faced during four years, ending in 1979, working as a machinist and throttleman on U.S. Navy ships and submarines.
“Being under water, not seeing daylight for days and days and days affects you,” said Welch, who earned a University of Buffalo bachelor’s degree, focusing on mental health and substance abuse counseling, in 2013.
“So does being racially profiled, as an African American, touring Korea, Japan, Australia, and stopping in at ports where you may become a target once you venture off the ship. The drugs and drinking were my way of handling everything that was messing with me.
“Once I got to veterans court, I had to start peeling back the onion. I started going to self-help groups … I stopped doing the [illegal] drugs, which was like losing a girlfriend. But I started seeing stuff, I started learning stuff. I went deeper into my depression and anxiety and PTSD, but I also got better.
“Today, for me, everything is just beautiful. Beautiful.”
This is one among several articles on mentally ill veterans, veterans treatment courts and jail- and prison-based veterans units that Katti Gray, The Crime Report contributing editor, produced for her 2014-15 Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellowship. She welcomes comments from readers.
Photos by Katti Gray.