A 2008 RAND Corp. study found that one-fifth of all US military service members who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan report grappling with post-traumatic stress or major depression. Yet half of these former troops say they have never sought treatment, either for fear that it will harm their careers, or because they have trouble navigating the military medical bureaucracy.
Veterans courts and their emphasis on rehabilitation are designed to help fill that gap.
The goal is to "really project the VA's treatment capacity into the criminal justice system," says Sean Clark, the VA's national coordinator for Veterans Justice Outreach, which means "trying to catch veterans as early as possible in their 'justice careers,' if you will."
In Buffalo, one criminal in particular, brought into court on a drug offense, stuck in Russell's mind.
"When I asked him where he lived, he said, 'Well, Judge, I'm homeless.' That blew me away. How can a guy who served in Iraq come home and say, 'I'm homeless'? It was just unconscionable to me."
Preventing homelessness is a primary aim, since adult male veterans who have been incarcerated are far more likely to be homeless, the VA's Mr. Clark says.
Though supported by the VA, veterans courts tend to be driven by individual judges and service members who see a need within their communities. In Buffalo, the vast majority of vets who walk through Russell's doors come on drug- and alcohol-related offenses.
"I started seeing vets from the most recent conflict – young people, 23 or 24," Russell says, recalling the events that led him to create his veterans court in January 2008. "They looked good physically – sharp, brush cut – but they were being arrested for different things."
And not all veteran offenders are cut out for veterans courts. By electing to go through the program, vets are agreeing to a rigorous 12-month program that includes intensive counseling, mentoring from fellow vets, frequent random drug tests, and job training.
Some drop out and opt for the "regular" court, in which they face jail time but none of the commitments of the rehabilitation program. Indeed, the 90 graduates of the Buffalo program represent only one-third of the 285 vets who have come before the court.