Why Veterans Should Get Their Own Courts

As troops surge back into domestic life, incarceration isn’t always the answer

Most courtrooms in the Frank Crowley Courts Building in Dallas hadn’t yet opened for normal business at 8:15 on a recent Friday morning, but onlookers filled the benches in Judge Mike Snipes’s court. Snipes sat erect, grasping a gavel and looking magisterial in his robes. The two tables in front of his bench were laden with cakes and breakfast tacos. A Congratulations banner, in gold and silver, hung behind him.

“Ryan Adams and Kinikia Burdine,” Snipes barked in a clipped voice that betrayed his history as an Army colonel. “Front and center.”

The roughly 30 people in the court, most of them veterans, stood and faced the back of the courtroom. Several smiled as “The Army Goes Rolling Along” began to boom from an iPod next to the judge’s bench. The doors flew open and in marched Adams and Burdine, in civilian dress. Everyone clapped. Snipes, who’d come down from the bench, shook their hands. He gave them each a plaque and said, “I am proud to say that you are reintegrated back into society.”

Many of the same people had been in this courtroom some nine months earlier, when Burdine had first stood before the court, mortified. A 32-year-old military-police officer who has trained Iraqi police in Baghdad, she’d been arrested for buying and using a stolen cell phone, the latest in a series of bad decisions she’d made since being released from active duty in 2005. She was offered a choice by a Dallas prosecutor: face a felony criminal charge, or enroll in Snipes’s “veterans court” program, where she would undergo closely monitored psychological counseling, mentoring by other veterans, and alcohol and drug testing.

In the courtroom that first time, Snipes had told her to introduce herself to the other veterans behind her—an action she found discomfiting, but one designed to help her recognize that she was once again part of a unit that would take care of her, if she did her part.

“It seemed really humiliating at first,” Burdine told me later. “I’m a dumb crook, and it’s a wack situation.”

Over the next nine months, she grew to look forward to her weekly hour-long drive to Dallas from her home in Fort Worth. It felt good, she said, to be around others who could understand why she watched cartoons to calm herself, why she felt nervous in large crowds, and why whiskey helped clear her head. In short, what it felt like to be a combat veteran.

Nearly 80 veterans courts have sprung up across the country over the past four years, and 20 more are expected to open by the end of this year. Many courts accept only nonviolent offenses. Some, like Dallas County, also take violent crimes on a case-by-case basis. Most consider only those veterans who are struggling with mental-health or substance-abuse problems. Many of the judges, lawyers, bailiffs, and court administrators have served or have family in the military, and some volunteer for the courts before or after normal hours. (One attraction of veterans courts is their low local cost, a result of this volunteerism and the provision of counseling by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.)

“Many [criminal-law] courts are saying ‘Wait a second,’” says Brian Clubb, the director of the veterans-treatment-court project at the National Association of Drug Court Professionals in Alexandria, Virginia. “‘These offenders have no criminal history, their family says they didn’t have any problems before going to war—we need to give them a second chance.’”

Most veterans courts have operated for two years or less, and gold-plated statistical data are hard to come by. But by and large, the courts have reported little recidivism, partly because the district attorneys and court administrators are careful about whom they let into the program, and partly because treatment is tailored for each veteran.

Since the Civil War, many American veterans have had their sentences reduced by judges who believed that their service mitigated their bad deeds, said Carissa Byrne Hessick, a law professor at Arizona State University. The ACLU and some district attorneys have tried to block the creation of veterans courts in several states on the grounds that justice inconsistently applied is justice denied. Veterans, some opponents say, shouldn’t get special treatment, because they enlisted voluntarily.

“We’re not against diversionary programs, but the idea of an entirely different court system based on status doesn’t make sense,” says Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel of the ACLU of Nevada. “Does that mean a police officer who is accused of a crime should have a separate court because of his stress?”

Yet roughly 140,000 American troops remain in Iraq and Afghanistan today. As the year-end withdrawal deadline looms in Iraq and the drawdown begins in Afghanistan, many will surge back into domestic life, and some will struggle with that transition. Craig McNeil, a Dallas County assistant district attorney and a veteran of the Iraq War, told me that many troubled veterans have mental-health problems, and they don’t always get treatment on their own. Incarceration is a poor solution to these problems, he said, and can lead to further criminality. “We want to keep them from going down the dirtbag path.”