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Buffalo's 'Veterans Court' wins praise in Congress

Buffalo City Judge Robert T. Russell Jr.'s "Veterans Treatment Court" is helping dozens of troubled former military personnel straighten up and stay out of prison -- and that's just the beginning.

Russell's idea has inspired 10 other communities nationwide to set up similar courts.

It has prompted three states to pass laws aimed at encouraging the creation of veterans courts and led Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., and Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., to push for federal funding for the concept.

It also brought Russell and several other Buffalo-area officials to a Wednesday round-table discussion with the House Veterans Affairs Committee, where they heard nothing but praise for a Buffalo-born idea that's catching fire nationwide.

"You have been an inspiration to people all over the country," said Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif, the committee's chairman.

"You win my 'wow' award," added Rep. Steve Buyer of Indiana, the committee's top Republican, who said Russell's success at helping troubled veterans "really wows me."

Russell adapted "drug courts," which seek treatment rather than incar
ceration for low-level offenders, for the wave of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans he saw entering the criminal-justice system.

Working with the Veterans Affairs Health Center Network and the local Veterans Affairs office, Russell's court pairs veterans guilty of nonviolent felony or misdemeanor offenses with volunteer veteran mentors, requiring them to adhere to a strict schedule of rehabilitation programs and court appearances.

So far, 120 vets have entered the program, and only five have been kicked out. Of the program's 18 graduates to date, not one has been re-arrested, Russell said.

"They are clean and sober and actively addressing any mental health needs," Russell said. "All are either employed or pursuing further education. Many have been able to mend strained relationships with family and friends, and those who were homeless were able to attain stable housing."

In other words, the program is taking psychologically wounded warriors -- including many who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or drug and alcohol addiction -- and setting them on a path for a better life.

"Who better deserves a second chance than a veteran?" asked Jack O'Connor, the mentor coordinator for the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court.

O'Connor told of one man who developed a drug habit soon after returning from war. After his arrest, he appeared disheveled in the courtroom, still showing the effects of his addiction.

After going through the court program, he's clean and sober, has a job and is in his first year at Erie Community College, O'Connor said.

The court works well because it points troubled veterans to exactly the services they need, be it medical care, psychological help or housing, said Jennifer P. Stergion of the Committee on Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Issues in Buffalo.

"There's really no limit to the services they provide," she said.

The peer mentoring that other veterans provide is particularly important, witnesses said.

"One reason this works is the camaraderie that comes with serving in the military," said Patrick W. Welch, director of the Erie County Veterans Service Agency.

Witnesses said mentoring sessions can include a lot of tough talk, but Rep. John Boozman, R-Ark., also noted the threat of tough action.

"The hammer you've got is that if these guys don't behave, they go back to jail," he said. "That's the ultimate accountability."

Russell established his veterans court in January 2008, and it quickly became a sensation. NBC's "Today" show did a feature story on the Buffalo court a year ago, and the National Law Journal did an article about it.

Before long, veterans courts had sprung up in Rochester, Chicago and several other communities. Illinois, Nevada and Texas passed laws aimed at launching additional veterans courts, and Kerry and Kennedy started pushing their bill.

Kennedy said the legislation, authorizing $25 million in federal funding for veterans courts, could become law this year.

Veterans courts are not without their critics, however. Rep. Timothy J. Walz, D-Minn., noted that an American Civil Liberties Union representative questioned why they were needed and compared the concept to establishing special courts for "crimes committed by police officers, teachers or politicians."

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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