Friday, February 19, 2010

The Triviality of Joe Stack; Veterans' Courts in the Media

Hey! Happy Friday!

Well, the big news here in Austin is still that plane crash from yesterday. Sounds like one person was killed (in addition to the pilot) and another person still remains hospitalized. While it's tragic that even one person was killed in yesterday's act of terrorism, it's actually incredibly fortunate that more damage wasn't done. I believe that 200 or more people worked in the Echelon building, so things could have been much, much worse (it's not clear how further casualties were avoided, but I heard at least one witness on TV saying that some people may have seen the plane coming and warned people inside the building to move away from the area where the plane hit).
Anyway, I'm still pissed off at this Joe Stack guy who flew the plane. Although I frequently get annoyed by the ridiculous priorities of the American media, in this case I'm kind of glad the media seems to be already moving on to talk about Tiger Woods and his apology for sleeping with golf groupies instead of focusing on the crash coverage. It seems kind of a fitting ending for Stack's rampage to seize the headlines for less than a day, only to be supplanted by something as trivial as the illicit love life of a professional golfer. You're not a headline, Stack. You're a footnote.

What else? There's an article in Newsweek this week about the nationwide initiative to form special courts for veterans. I mention this primarily because I've recently been involved in the planning process for the formation of a veterans' treatment court here in Travis County. The first veterans' court in the country was established in 2008 in Buffalo, New York, by Judge Robert Russell (whom I had a chance to speak with when he visited Austin). The veterans' court, at least as we're envisioning it here in Austin, will be primarily intended to address mental health and addiction issues among veterans who are arrested on criminal charges and end up in the justice system.
As the article mentions, there have already been complaints and questions raised by groups like the ACLU, who see the formation of the veterans courts as the first step in the implementation of a separate justice system that provides special, favorable treatment to people on the basis of their status as veterans.
Well, I'm just down in the trenches (not really a policy maker), but it seems like a legitimate need exists for providing specialized treatment for veterans- particularly those who've served in combat or in hazardous duty areas- not simply because we're granting them a special legal status, but because some of them have developed some significant mental, physical, and emotional problems which can be directly attributed to experiences that occurred during their military service. We have large numbers of veterans who are returning from our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with post traumatic stress disorder, tramatic brain injuries, and other mental health problems, and the Veterans Administration is uniquely suited to address their ongoing issues (issues which, in a justic system context, have frequently contributed to their underlying criminal offenses). The veterans treatment court is supposed to be a sort of linking mechanism between the services provided by the VA and the justice system (providing treatment services that really aren't available to the larger, civilian population of criminal defendants). Without getting too touchie feelie about the whole thing, I really do see a legitimate reason to treat veterans a bit differently when their military service has contributed significantly to their personal problems and when VA providers are able and willing to help address some of these issues. If we're trying to curb recidivism as one of our major goals, it just seems to make sense to try to address some underlying issues so that we don't see these people again and again.
Also, I don't think it's really fair to say that the use of a veterans treatment court creates a separate justice system for veterans. At this point, our country is already employing a number of specialized treatment courts that address a number of different issues for a number of specialized caseloads. We have a special DWI court that provides specialized treatment for DWI defendants with serious alcohol issues, we have Project Recovery (a specialized docket that provides inpatient treamtent for alcoholics in the homeless population), and the felony courts have things like the SHORT program (a court program that provides treatment and supervision for drug users). So the use of treatment courts is by no means limited to the veteran population. The main difference with the veterans treatment court is that it's able to avail itself of some fairly high quality services that are provided by the VA.
Anyway, it's not as if we're flying into this whole process with blinders on. We (i.e., the prosecutors and judges) aren't going to give veterans a free pass, and we're not going to assume that every crime committed by a veteran necessarily took place simply because a person served in the military (obviously you can be the sort of person who commits crimes long before joining the military, and still be that kind of person after you have served). On the other hand, on appropriate cases the VA linkage will hopefully give us a whole array of treatments that wouldn't be available in their absence.
I'm really hoping it all turns out to be a good thing.

Well, I gotta run. Hope you guys have a great weekend!!!


EditorPenguin said...

Great post! Do you know if your court will include felony cases yet? I'm currently working on a documentary film about a veterans court in Santa Ana. You can check out our progress at:

Jason said...

Thanks for the comment! There will eventually be a felony court, but I work in a misdemeanor prosecutor's office, so my knowledge of the felony court is all secondhand. They are planning to get one going, though.