Friday, May 28, 2010

Karen Heller: Veterans Court winning cases

Needed in IL & CU Area

-----Original Message-----
From: LARRY HOLMAN via Ney, Gerald A CIV []
Sent: Friday, May 28, 2010 3:14 PM
To: VVA-Talklist
Subject: FW: Veterans Court winning cases

Posted on Wed, May. 26, 2010

Karen Heller: Veterans Court winning cases

By Karen Heller

Inquirer Columnist

Today is Veterans Day at the Criminal Justice Center. So is every

Wednesday, when it's time for Veterans Court, the Hon. and U.S. Army

Reserve Capt. Patrick F. Dugan presiding.

Established in March by state Supreme Court Justices Ronald D. Castille

and Seamus P. McCaffery, both decorated veterans, the court is one of

three in the state, and almost 20 nationwide, exclusively handling

veterans' misdemeanor cases.

It's already a success, a "problem-solving" court, like drug court and

mental health court, designed to expedite assistance and avoid costly

legal delays and jail time. Defendants range from age 20 (Iraq) to 80

(Korea), but the cases are remarkably sad and similar - virtually all

male, charged with driving under the influence, disorderly conduct,

possession, spousal abuse.

"A vast majority of the defendants are involved with drugs and alcohol,"

Dugan says. They need treatment and attention.

"I finished the ninth grade," says an Army veteran, picked up for

possession. He looks as if his best years are decades behind him.

"I believe you attended the University of Vietnam," says Dugan, who

speaks respectfully to all veterans. "You need to clean up. You've been

there. You've seen some crazy stuff in your life. This is illegal.

You've been through too much to go through that. So step up."

Normally, the wheels of justice grind slow. That is not the case in

Veterans Court, where 25 cases are adjudicated in two hours.

"In most courtrooms, it takes a long time to get a diversion program to

kick in because of the sheer size of the bureaucracies," says Dugan, a

former infantryman and paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne, who later

served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He may also be, quite possibly,

the only judicial candidate who ran partially on an "I hate the Dallas

Cowboys" platform.

"It can take six months for a diversion program to kick in," he says.

"Here, it's almost instantly. Some veterans start the program before

I've heard the case."

This is thanks, in large part, to the work of Rebecca Hicks of the

Department of Veterans Affairs, who works in Courtroom 1003 Wednesdays

along with Kelley Hodge of the District Attorney's Office, public

defender Brunilda Vargas, and a trio of proud, elegant veteran mentors

sitting in the front bench, waiting to help.

"She's outstanding. I can't commend Rebecca enough for the job she's

doing," Dugan says of the soft-spoken social worker. "She goes to prison

to meet with these people. We're blessed to have her in the room."

Veterans represent a tenth of the jail population, according to the VA,

the majority charged with nonviolent offenses. All legal and government

entities present in the courtroom share the same goals: to get these men

help before they seriously hurt others, while keeping them out of jail.

Veterans Court is also there to help defendants from slipping further

and becoming homeless. A third of all men on the street are believed to

have served in the military, according to the National Coalition for

Homeless Veterans.

"The majority of our veterans are really grateful," says Hicks. The

Philadelphia office assists 60,000 veterans annually, a third of them

for behavioral health issues, and drug and alcohol abuse. "We're trying

to turn a negative set of circumstances into a positive, life-changing

experience. I see the veterans as quickly as I can after their first

hearing. Sometimes, the very next day." After each case, Hicks beckons

the veteran to her table and in her old-fashioned daybook schedules an

assessment appointment.

"Obviously, we're in favor of any program that aids our clients," says

Assistant Public Defender Charles Cunningham. "We certainly think people

who have served our country are entitled to some special consideration.

Sometimes the reason they're in this position is because of service to

this country."

Veterans Court is able "to provide therapeutic assistance while reducing

the risk of recidivism," says Hodge, who is chief of the district

attorney's Municipal Court unit. "How an individual does with treatment

dictates whether he 'graduates' out of the system. What benefit is it to

us if he goes into jail and serves his time but is never treated for


One Navy veteran, 54, returns to court after his third DUI offense and

detox treatment at the VA's Coatesville facility. "I've been in trouble

with alcohol all my life. You've saved my life," he tells the court, the

public defender requesting that his name not be published. "My life was

going right down the drain. You're giving me the tools to get my life

back. Hospitalization is the best thing that could happen to me."

Dugan addresses three defendants, all charged with DUI. "This is like

shooting a gun into a crowd. I've read your files and, between you guys,

the places you saw, the things that you've done, the ribbons you have,

you've done so much," he says.

"You guys are the good guys. I expect more of you," Dugan says. "So

don't be coming back into my courtroom because I'll hold you to a higher

standard. And I will hammer you. And you would expect that of me."

All three defendants stand at military attention, nodding their heads in




Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or

Karen Heller: Veterans Court winning cases


sounds like a good program hopefully a few bad apples won't mess it up for all of the men and women who will also need a little help along their way to adjust to "home life again" some people do not understand sometimes veterans just need a friendly kick in the azz to remind them of who and what they were and can be again. All they need is a chance

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