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Special Veterans' Courts Are Great; Why Can't Everyone Have Them? Why Aren't All Courts Veterans Courts?

Some soldiers returning from the Middle East are facing special courts when they break the law. Here's why that's wrong.

In the December issue of The Atlantic, Army vet and journalist Kristina Shevory writes about a tremendous idea: "veterans court."


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.

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The thinking behind creating special courts for veterans is that the hellishness of war leads thousands of them to the brink of insanity, which in turn causes bad behavior during the transition from soldier to civilian. "Many [criminal law] courts are saying 'Wait a second, 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," Brian Clubb, head of the veterans court project at the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, told Shevory.

Though there's no concrete data yet, veterans courts report relatively low recidivism, according to experts—in part thanks to the fact that sentences are tailored specifically to the offenders' needs. Some go to drug treatment, others are ordered into psychotherapy. What veterans courts don't do is summarily throw defendants in jail. Basically, veterans court seems like a Xerox copy of Portugal's fantastic drug policies, which decriminalize drugs in favor of substance-abuse treatment for addicts.

In short, veterans court is a pretty great idea that seems to be working. There's just one problem: Why is it limited only to veterans?

Over the past couple years, the ACLU has tried to block veterans courts in states around the country, arguing that affording vets sentencing leniency because of their social status is wrong. I'd agree with that summation, with one proviso: It's not that veterans shouldn't be given leniency, it's that nearly every criminal should.

America was reminded of the barbarism of its justice system in July, when, in the wake of Anders Breivik's devastating killing spree in Norway, Norwegians never called for Breivik's quick death. "The [Norwegian justice] system focuses on rehabilitation and restoration, not just punishment and retaliation," a Norwegian man told me at the time. "Many a murderer has served his or her sentence and is now free to roam and contribute to society." In Florida in 1996, the average sentence length handed down to a murderer was about 21 years [PDF]. In Norway, where there is no death penalty and prison is seen as restorative rather than punitive, the maximum sentence for virtually any crime is 21 years. For all of Norway's leniency, its incarceration and recidivism rates remain far lower than America's.

The logic behind veterans-only courts goes further wrong in assuming that only veterans experience trauma that impacts their behavior. Boys raised in homes with domestic violence, for instance, have been found to be 10 times more likely to hit their own spouses, while a study from 2005 discovered that serial killers who murdered for sexual gratification were 36 percent more likely to have experienced physical abuse and 26 percent more likely to have been raised with sexual abuse. It's not only soldiers who are exposed to prolonged bouts of violence and terror, so why should only soldiers get private courts in which their time on the front lines buys them more patient justice?

Fighting a war is a terrible and ugly thing, and we should always acknowledge the selflessness of the men and women who die on America's behalf. But there are plenty of people in American jails right now who were born into their own tiny war zones in Compton or Chicago, and nobody gave them a special break when they went to trial for smoking crack or robbing a liquor store. The greatest crime of veterans courts is that they allow us to forget the parts of New Orleans that have looked liked battlefields for years now.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user mikecogh

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