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The Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court


The Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court is a hybrid drug and mental health court that serves veterans who are struggling with addiction and / or mental illness by diverting them from the traditional criminal justice system into a specialized veterans court.

It is a collaborative effort among the Western New York (WNY) Veterans Project, Buffalo Police Department, The Buffalo Veteran’s Administration Health Care System, The Buffalo Criminal Courts, The Buffalo Drug and Mental Health Treatment Courts, Erie County Pre-trial Services and the C.O.U.R.T.S Program (Court Outreach Unit Referral and Treatment Service).

We believe our court will be the model for all future veterans treatment courts. The program is designed by the Buffalo City Court to keep veterans who are non-violent offenders out of jail. This program requires no additional costs. The court expenses already exist and there are volunteers from the local veterans community. So far, Buffalo is the only city in America where such a program exists. We hope that other jurisdictions will be inspired by this initiative and start Veterans Treatment courts in their hometowns.

VA Secretary Eric K Shinseki visits the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court

by Sergio R. Rodriguez

On Tuesday, April 6th, 2010 Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki visited the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court program. The program is the first of its kind in the nation and is used as a model for other treatment court programs being created in other parts of the country. The Secretary's purpose was to receive first-hand knowledge about how the program works in order to integrate and develop similar endeavors in other communities. At a private meeting with over 40 volunteer veteran mentors the Secretary praised the work and commitment from the mentors, VA Medical Center and VA Regional Office, Judge Russell and Judges Amado and Perlatto for the vision to create this model for all the nation to follow.

The treatment court has received tremendous support from the federal VA, as they staff each session with several VA employees who are there to ensure that veterans are enrolled into the VA Health Network. The VA employees also facilitate claim status inquiries and other needs. The Veterans Treatment Court originated in Buffalo, NY in January of 2008 and is presided by Judge Robert Russell and the assistance of court coordinator Marine Vietnam Veteran Hank Pirowski. There are several veteran mentors with varying degrees of experience who play an integral role in the function of the court. By giving defendants the opportunity of being guided by someone with whom they can relate to, these veteran mentors provide an essential function to the treatment court. In fact, the program's success is often attributed to the contributions of these volunteers. Having served as the director of Medicaid for Erie County's Department of Social Services, Army Vietnam Veteran Jack O'Connor was instrumental in the creation of the court’s mentorship program.

Together with Judge Russell's leadership, the VA's participation and the contributions of volunteer Veteran mentors, the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court Program has successfully graduated dozens of veterans who have steered their lives away from the traps that many others before them have fallen into in the absence of such a program. Below are pictures of General Shinseki's visit to the Buffalo, NY. If you wish to learn more about the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court Program, please contact Jack O'Connor by phone at 716-858-7345 or by email at oconnorj@erie.gov. You may also contact the Erie County Veterans Service Agency for more information.

Erie County Veterans Service Agency Director Patrick W. Welch, Ph.D. with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki
Erie County Veterans Service Agency Director Patrick W. Welch, Ph.D. with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki presents Judge Robert Russell with a VA challenge coin award
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki presents Judge Robert Russell with a VA challenge coin award.

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki with mentors from the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court
Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki with mentors from the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court.

Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court Judge Robert Russell responding to questions from the local media
Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court Judge Robert Russell responding to questions from the local media.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki taking questions from the local media
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki taking questions from the local media.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and Judge Robert Russell discuss the veterans treatment court program
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and Judge Robert Russell discuss the veterans treatment court program.

Judge Robert Russell and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki
Judge Robert Russell and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

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The SERV Act

A bill to provide grants to establish veteran's treatment courts.

The Services, Education, and Rehabilitation for Veterans (SERV) Act, was introduced by Senator John Kerry (D-MA) and Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) in July of 2008 to create veteran drug treatment courts to support veterans combat the cycle of alcohol or drug addiction. The SERV Act is modeled on the Veterans Treatment Court in Buffalo. Visit this OpenCongress.org link for the bill's progress.

Photo from AP Photo by Don Heupel

Photo from AP Photo by Don Heupel
Judge Robert Russell listens during
courtroom proceedings in the
Veterans Court session in Buffalo,
N.Y. on June 3, 2008. Russell
is the even-handed quarterback
of a courtroom team of
veterans advocates and volunteers
determined to make this
brush with the criminal justice
system these veterans' last.

SERV Act in the news:

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What other leaders are doing to make the Buffalo Veterans Court a reality in:

Tulsa, Oklahoma: VETERANS FIGHT FOR AN ALTERNATIVE JUSTICE SYSTEM THAT TAKES THEIR TRAUMA INTO ACCOUNT

"I think that the least that we owe these veterans is to give them another chance," Bennett said. "They volunteered to do this. And we train them and train them to go do the things they did. Then they come back, and we don't really help them when they get back. When Bennett read about a judge in Buffalo, New York, creating a court docket for veterans who wound up in trouble after facing combat, he realized how he could take action. He got to work trying to get a similar court off the ground in Oklahoma..."

Rochester, NY: THE ROCHESTER VETERANS COURT OPENS FOR BUSINESS

"The Rochester Veterans' Court held its first session this afternoon. It's an effort based on the successful Rochester Drug Court, and intended to help veterans who've had a brush with the law stay out of future trouble. McClune says veterans -- particularly those who have been in combat -- will sometimes self-medicate with alcohol or drugs to deal with their experiences. This can lead to job loss, family alienation and arrest for drug or related offenses..."

Las Vegas, Nevada: SPECIAL COURTS FOR VETERANS

"It has taken a long time, but fortunately special courts are now beginning to open around the country for military veterans whose troubles with the law are possibly linked to service-related drug, alcohol or mental health issues. McCloskey reported that Buffalo's model has since been adopted in Anchorage, Alaska; Orange County, Calif.; Rochester, N.Y., and Tulsa, Okla. She also reported that 20 other court systems around the country are considering the idea..."

Pittsburg, Pennsylvania: ALLEGHENY COUNTY PLANS COURT FOR VETERANS

"... veterans' court would provide veterans charged with nonviolent crimes a chance to avoid jail time by entering treatment programs under strict supervision. So many returning servicemen and women face mental health and substance abuse problems that it makes sense to bring their cases to a place where their challenges are better understood, officials said. In Buffalo, Judge Robert Russell's Tuesday afternoon court started about a year ago and is set to "graduate" its first class of eight veterans this week, said program manager Hank Pirowsk. The defendants are matched up with volunteer veteran mentors, and there's a representative from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in the courtroom..."

Phoenix, Arizona: NEW COURT IS SOUGHT TO AID VETS CHARGED WITH CRIMES

"Studies have shown that 30 to 40 percent of the 1.6 million troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan will "face serious mental-health injuries" such as PTSD or traumatic brain injury. A lot of what brings veterans into contact with the criminal-justice system is the result of injuries they received while they were serving; their behaviors are so tied to whatever that service-related injury could be," Curran said. "There's a stigma around seeking services, especially when you come from a culture where it's important to be strong. It's less likely for veterans to ask for help. In upstate New York, Erie County residents have come to expect low-level offenders to get diverted to one of Buffalo's specialty courts if the suspects qualify, said Judge Robert Russell, who presides over the veterans court..."

Madison, Wisconsin: NEW YORK JUDGE URGES SPECIAL COURTS FOR VETERANS

"Buffalo's Veterans Treatment Court, the first of its kind in the nation, was formed because "something more needed to be done" to help former service members, the judge said. Russell said he conducts an open dialogue with veterans who appear before him, which is different than the adversarial setting in other criminal courtrooms..."

Mesa, Arizona: EFFORTS UNDER WAY TO CREATE VETERANS COURT IN THE VALLEY

"Several groups are working to create a Veterans Court in Maricopa County. It would handle criminal cases involving all soldiers, but primarily it's designed to address the unique needs of combat veterans with post traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries suffered on the battlefield. These are people who were civilians, signed up to be part-time warriors, if you will, but now they're full-time warriors and part-time civilians... We're trying to get basically ahead of the curve, unlike we did for Vietnam, Korea, World War II..."

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A courtroom just for veterans as featured in the "Today Show".
Oct. 22: A courtroom in New York is devoted only to serving veterans and their families. NBC's Bob Faw reports.

(Click here to launch this video on a separate web page)

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Media Coverage:

National

Local

Photo from AP Photo by Don Heupel

Photo from AP Photo by Don Heupel
Daniel Kind stands before Judge Robert Russell
during the Veterans Court session in
Buffalo, N.Y. on June 3, 2008.

Websites

Veterans who need some help but are not necessary violating the law, can still go through the program. For more information about Veteran's Court, call 716-845-2697. You may also contact Jack O'Connor by phone at 716-858-7345 or e-mail at oconnorj@erie.gov. The Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court is located at Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court 50 Delaware Avenue, Suite 250, Buffalo, New York 14202

The Western New York veteran's community is grateful for the dedication of Judge Robert Russell, Lt. David Mann, Buffalo Police Dept, Jack O'Connor, Vietnam Veteran US Army, Hank Pirowski, Vietnam Veteran US Marine Corps - without them many of our fellow veterans would find themselves in jail.

On behalf of America's veterans, THANK YOU.