As of this spring, more 400 veterans have graduated from Philadelphia’s Veterans Court, a program designed to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison.
Modeled on drug and alcohol treatment courts, sessions take place weekly in a Center City courtroom. Judge Pat Dugan – himself a veteran – presides over the cases.
The court works because it brings together a lot of professional help, Dugan said. “We bring in a team of social workers, case managers, mentors, peer mentors, attorneys, therapists, and we treat the defendant as a whole person — not just look at the criminal act.”
Even so, the challenges facing veterans make recovery a long road. “Some of our veteran defendants – they’re so fragile and so beat up,” said Dugan. “Some of them have done multiple tours, they have post-traumatic stress disorder, they have traumatic brain injuries. And they’re overmedicated to the point where one medicine is counteracting the other.”
If they choose, veterans who enter the court can be matched with a volunteer peer mentor who is also a veteran. If participants complete their probation and treatment plan without reoffending, they “graduate” from the court — which sometimes involves expunging the offense from their permanent record.
Dr. David Oslin, associate chief of staff for behavioral health for the Veterans Affairs office in Philadelphia, said peer mentors provide support that professionals can’t.
“We use peer mentors in our treatment programs to reach out and engage patients who have dropped out of treatment for one reason or another,” said Oslin. “Just having somebody that you can meet with briefly and just talk about whether your needs are getting met or other issues that the veterans may not feel comfortable telling their therapist.”
Oslin says vets are more comfortable sharing their hardships with someone who understands what they’re going through. Dugan agrees.
“We’ve had many defendants, many veteran defendants at graduation look around and say, “No one listened to me. It’s so good to have someone listen to me,'” said Dugan.
When he’s not presiding over Veterans Court, Dugan works the bench in another criminal court. He says the comparison is striking. “I feel [the veterans are] much better served than the defendants that come through the majority of the courtrooms in the criminal division,” said Dugan. “They’re given more care because so many people are involved with trying to help the veteran get back on track.”
Recidivism rates for Veterans Court in Philadelphia hover around 10 percent, while some other Veterans Courts boast rates close to zero.
The first Veterans Court opened in Buffalo, New York, in 2008. There are now more than 150 across the country, including local outposts in Delaware, Montgomery, and Berks counties as well as Philadelphia. New Jersey and Delaware courts provide their own veterans treatment programs.
Veterans’ eligibility to participate in the courts — and what types of offenses it will rule on — differs from courtroom to courtroom. For example, Norristown’s Veterans Court helps only veterans with certain types of mental illness or traumatic brain injuries – others are referred to drug or alcohol treatment courts.