Lawyers Can Thank Veterans Throughout Our Profession
Veterans Day was this past Friday. As lawyers, how do we properly thank a veteran for their service? One way is to make it a question during your intake process. When we represent a veteran in any practice area, ask whether they are benefiting from the compensation they may have earned or whether they know of the VA home loan and health care services. Many veterans receive valuable college and vocational school education benefits but too many think that they needed 20 years of service. The veteran’s children may also be entitled to generous college benefits. This Veterans Day and every day is an opportunity to provide valuable information that would be helpful to veterans. In particular, New Jersey has a program for those who may run afoul of criminal laws.
Veterans Diversionary Program, Five Years Later
Justice-involved veterans do not deserve special treatment but they have hard-earned Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits that, when utilized, have proven to be remarkably beneficial in avoiding recidivism. The VA has its detractors but its opportunities for in-patient, out-patient, group and individual behavioral health services are unmatched. Incarcerating veterans who have served in combat is a failure and veteran diversion links benefits to the men and women who need the services. Veteran criminal diversion enhances and saves lives.
Opportunity and Failure: VA Veterans Justice Outreach Liaisons
New Jersey has hundreds of municipal courts and dozens more Superior Courthouses across the state. Criminal defendants have court sessions, in-person and virtually, from early morning until late at night. The VA supplies just five Veterans Justice Outreach Liaisons (VJOs) for all of New Jersey’s courts and judges. Since most judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers and those in criminal case management have not served in the military nor are they familiar with VA services, justice-involved veterans do not learn of the mental health, housing and education benefits when charged with a crime.
The mission of the VJOs and VA Justice Programs is to identify those in need at the earliest possible point in order to facilitate access to VA services. Another of the missions that VJOs serve is to end homelessness among veterans. Although known as Veterans Diversion in New Jersey, the Veterans Treatment Courts model adopted throughout the country is based on the drug and mental health courts that have existed for nearly 30 years. Unlike traditional criminal courts, these courts are not primarily for determining whether a defendant is guilty of an offense but rather to ensure that he or she receives treatment to address unmet clinical needs. Nonetheless, justice can be done in cases where a diversion is inappropriate and the VA’s involvement with their billions of dollars in resources will not harm the process.
The VA also directly supports justice-involved veterans through the VJOs by promoting the health care services it provides to veteran defendants, and in many cases their families, most of whom would otherwise receive care at county expense. The VJOs assess veteran defendants’ treatment needs, link veterans with appropriate VA treatment services, and (with the veteran’s permission) provide regular updates to the court on their progress in treatment. The VA’s role is limited to the treatment-related aspects of the court process.
The Challenge, Five Years Later
New Jersey’s Veterans Diversion Program is a County Prosecutor program and there is little to no state guidance or oversight from Trenton. That can be good, as in a few counties with effective programs, or that deference can be devastating when the prosecution ignores the important advantages to the veterans and their families of utilizing VA programs.
One Solution: Regionalization of Municipal Courts
Last year, what might have been viewed as a new law unrelated to veterans established a regional municipal court pilot program in New Jersey and this should be an opportunity to ensure that VJOs are linked with justice-involved veterans in an efficient manner. The Administrative Office of the Courts is in the process of growing a pilot program in which the regional municipal court would have jurisdiction over all matters falling within the jurisdiction of the municipal courts that are part of the pilot program.
The intent behind the law’s passage may have been cost savings and economies of scale, however this is exactly the opportunity that veterans need to make diversion meaningful. It is easy to foresee eligible veterans reporting on an assigned date each month so that all justice-involved veterans who are monitored as part of the program are afforded the benefits of a trained VJO. If the courts treat diversion honestly, only knowledgeable judges, prosecutors and probation staff will prove helpful in fully implementing this program. In this fashion, the VA can be present in the courtroom, offer its vast and costly services and answer the multitude of questions that arise.
Formalization and Standardization
Former New Jersey State Bar President Robert Hille recently commented that “the program was truly transformative. When veterans  rejoin society as law-abiding and productive members, everyone benefits. There is no reason why these results cannot be achieved in every county. In just over 4.5 years, the Program has demonstrated great success where it has been embraced. Yet, it is capable of so much more. What is needed, however, is a statewide commitment and comprehensive administration. Institutionalizing the approach in the Superior Court as with the ‘drug court’ would increase utilization through a statewide mechanism to draw attention to the Program as an option and in the municipal courts through Central Municipal Court Management.
At the same time, a commitment from the New Jersey Attorney General to implement the Program statewide is necessary. Directing all County Prosecutors Offices to implement the program is critical to its expansion and its effectiveness and to ensure its availability to all qualified New Jersey Veterans.”
Veteran Mentors: Meaningful Thanks to Veterans
Last week, David Culley of the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (DMAVA) conducted a training session for a new class of mentors to assist this important process. Veteran-mentors provide a tremendous service to everyone involved in the program. The application can be found at www.nj.gov/military/veterans.
Those who served are eligible for this role. Volunteer mentors are constantly being recruited, according to DMAVA, to “assist an eligible servicemember who is a veteran in accessing assistance to resolve the underlying problems that led or contributed to the eligible servicemember’s involvement with the criminal justice system.” Veteran-mentors attend court when they are able and are a critical resource between the court system, the VA and the justice-involved veteran.
A mentor’s first obligation is to support the veteran. The mentor will protect a veteran’s welfare and diligently seek to assist the veteran in achieving his or her goals.
The Veterans Criminal Diversion law established this program under the direction of the Governor while the Adjutant General “shall” exercise control over the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. The Attorney General needs to promote this program and work with County Prosecutors and the New Jersey Adjutant General, Brigadier General Lisa Hou, to ensure that state and county law enforcement receive the tools and information that they need to avoid unnecessary pretrial incarceration of our nation’s combat veterans. It is urgent because prosecutors are allowing unnecessary incarceration of veterans, and others, in far too cavalier a way. They are also filing motions to detain and keep them a few extra days to prepare for a hearing. Combat veterans, and many others, deserve better tailored and more thoughtful treatment from law enforcement.
Police and prosecutors have the discretion and can work together to hospitalize appropriate candidates from the inception of investigations and not incarcerate them. Take the veteran to the emergency room first. Charging can always come later for those who are not a threat of further violence. Done right, the VA and courts can make a tremendous difference and the next five years will outshine what progress has been achieved in the past five years. “Freedom isn’t free” isn’t just a catchy phrase, so try to jump in and make a difference in your county and do not wait for someone else to move your county in the right direction.