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Working to Establish the State’s First Veterans Court

Men and women who serve in the military endure high costs of service. The impact of military service on veterans can be immense and long-lasting. Many returning veterans cope with serious issues such as alcohol and substance abuse, mental illness, homelessness, unemployment and strained relationships. With the increase of veterans suffering from these issues in our criminal justice system, there is a need to develop innovative ways of working to address the needs.

One of Attorney General Kilmartin's priorities in office has been the creation of a Veterans Court in Rhode Island. Along with Rhode Island District Court Chief Judge Jeanne E. LaFazia, AG Kilmartin is committed to make the state's initiative for this unique court program a reality.

“Each year, hundreds of Rhode Islanders serve in our nation’s military in combat zones. Post traumatic stress disorder is a real issue for veterans. For many, the transition back to home is difficult and can result in bad choices that put them in conflict with the law,” said AG Kilmartin. “It is incumbent upon us to provide a legal system that does not penalize our veterans, but rather provide access to treatment necessary to transition back to their families, their jobs, and their community.”

“ ‘No soldier left behind’ is a code which Americans have always been proud to live by,” said Chief Judge LaFazia. “As Americans, we do not desert our soldiers on the battlefield – shouldn’t this also be true on the home front? Don’t we owe our returning soldiers a similar duty when they come home injured or affected in a way that has altered who they are and what they do, especially if that injury causes or fuels behavior that puts them into our criminal justice system? It is well established that some of these individuals are returning home with injuries that are very real but invisible to the naked eye.”

The Veteran’s Court will provide qualified veteran or active military person suffering from PTSD or other service related with wrap-around services through the court with the ultimate goal of providing the veteran/active military person the necessary tools necessary to lead a productive and law-abiding lifestyle.

Rhode Island’s pilot program in the Third Division District Court in Kent County is funded through a grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in partnership with the Rhode Island Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH) and the Kent Center in Warwick.

Earlier this year, Attorney General Kilmartin and Chief Judge LaFazia met with US Attorney General Eric Holder, US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, RI Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul A. Suttell, and representatives from the RI National Guard, Office of the Public Defender and other veteran advocates to discuss the state’s initiative to establish a Veteran’s Court.

Attorney General Kilmartin continues to work with Chief Judge LaFazia, and all interested parties, both governmental and non-governmental - on the parameters of the Veteran’s Court, including establishing who would qualify, and identifying alternative treatment options.

Recently, AG Kilmartin, Judge LaFazia and key staff members traveled to Buffalo, New York for a day of resource sharing. The Buffalo Veterans Court is the first of its kind in the United States, is a national model.

"The Buffalo Veterans Court recognizes that veterans, especially those returning from combat, have unique needs that most of the population may not be able to understand," added AG Kilmartin. "Post traumatic stress disorder is a very real issue for many veterans. They have put their lives on the line to defend our freedom, and some continue to pay a high price. We owe it to them to help them put their lives back together."

Chief Judge LaFazia described the trip to Buffalo with Attorney General Kilmartin as a “tremendous success.” She noted that Buffalo has a “full wrap-around program for all veterans that is not limited just to those who have seen combat, as our court calendar in Rhode Island currently is. It is a model for what we can hope to achieve in our state someday.”

Started in 2008, the Buffalo Veterans Court is a hybrid Drug and Mental Health Treatment Court, created to provide judicially monitored treatment to Veterans in the criminal justice system struggling with substance addiction, serious mental health disease and/or co-occurring disorders. The goal is to successfully habilitate Veterans by diverting them from the traditional criminal justice system and providing them the tools they will need to lead a productive, law-abiding life.

Defendants in the Buffalo Veterans Court are typically non-violent offenders. In order to participate in the program, the veterans involved are required to get mental health and/or addiction counseling.

Jail-diversion courts for veterans, like Rhode Island’s, are being replicated throughout the country. Forty-six operate in 20 states. Another 50 are in the works.

To learn more about Rhode Island’s proposed Veterans Court, please visit http://www.courts.ri.gov/PDF/Veterans.pdf

To learn more about the Buffalo & Erie County Veterans Court Program, please visit http://www.erie.gov/veterans/veterans_court.asp

The Buffalo Veterans Court was recently featured in the ABA Journal. To read the article, please visit http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/the_battle_on_the_home_front_special_courts_turn_to_vets_to_help_other_vets/