BY JEFF DEENEY Last week Municipal Court President Judge Marsha Neifield announced the official opening of Philadelphia’s Veterans Court. Veterans Court is a new problem-solving court along the lines of other initiatives like Drug Court, DUI Court and Mental Health Court. The problem solving court model is geared towards a specific population of non-violent offenders in the criminal justice system who can benefit from interventions other than incarceration, like drug and alcohol and mental health treatment. The public safety risk posed by the typical problem-solving court offender is low and the benefits of treatment are great, so these programs are supported by the court, the Defender’s Association and the District Attorney’s Office who work in cooperation with social service providers to both serve and monitor the offender in the community. The ultimate objective is to keep the offender out of the prison system where their contact with more serious offenders would increase their risk of re-offense and re-incarceration for more serious crimes.
The court utilizes plea bargaining as a means of leveraging offenders into treatment. The offender’s charges are held in adjudication and are expunged upon completion of the program. If the offender rejects the plea or is terminated from the program either for chronic non-compliance with the court’s instructions or committing a serious, violent crime while in the program they are sentenced for their original charges. The court monitors the offender’s participation in treatment and can sanction the offender for noncompliance. During their time in the program the offender has access to counseling resources and social workers who work to ensure that the offender is benefiting from the treatment process and has access to other ancillary services like housing, education and job training. At this point there is a fairly massive base of research supporting the problem-solving court model as one that is effective at changing negative behaviors and subsequently reducing negative outcomes like recidivism and relapse and the reliance on expensive tax payer funded resources like jails and rehabs that go along with them. Problem-solving courts work, end of story. In fact, one could argue that problem-solving courts are the only things in the American criminal justice system that currently do work, but that’s for another editorial.
Veterans Court is a special application of the well-studied and highly effective Drug Court model (disclosure: I am a social worker with the city’s Drug Court) to address the unique problems faced by military veteran offenders like those who are returning in increasing numbers from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Veteran’s Administration is the provider of drug and alcohol treatment, mental health counseling, housing, job training, job referrals and other ancillary services, which gives these programs a pretty deep base of resources to pull from. The court works on the fraternal “battle buddy” system utilized in the military to group offenders together on dockets by the military branch and the conflict they served in; i.e., ideally a group of marines who served in Iraq will come to court on a certain day, a group of army vets from Vietnam on another. The offenders are similarly paired in their treatment settings so they can draw on their shared experience of military service to strengthen their group bonds in a way that has been shown in other established Veterans Courts to improve treatment outcomes.
Veterans Court is also run by veterans; the two Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices who have worked to expand the model across the state are both decorated vets. Municipal Court judges Patrick Dugan and Joseph Waters who will oversee the program locally are both decorated vets. Judge Dugan, specifically, I can say with some certainty is the perfect man for the job. He recently filled in for Drug Court and everyone who worked with him was blown away by both his intelligence and more importantly his compassion. Problems-solving courts are meant to be non-confrontational environments that benefit from a softer touch on the bench than other courtrooms. Also, the best problem solving courts are run judges who are dedicated to the court’s central mission and the population it works with. Hopes are high that Philly’s Veterans Court, like its Drug Court before it, will become a model court that other cities around the world will turn to as an example of a well-implemented program that has a measurable positive impact on the city.
Imagine if there were Veterans Courts 40 years ago, and soldiers returning from Vietnam with drug, alcohol and mental health problems were effectively steered upon their first contact with the criminal justice system into treatment instead of into jails and institutions. I would wager that an entire era of American history would be re-written. Luckily we have the chance to not repeat history, as vets returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan who struggle with these problems will be far more likely to get the services they need to thrive in the post-war world instead of falling behind and being forgotten like their predecessors due to smart, innovative initiatives like Veterans Court.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeff Deeney is a Philadelphia-based writer whose work has appeared in PW, City Paper, the Inquirer and the Daily Beast. He focuses on issues of urban poverty and drug culture. He is currently working on a book about life in the crossfire of poverty, drugs, guns, and the bureaucracies designed to remedy them, all of which informed his experiences as social workers in some of the city’s most dire and depleted neighborhoods.