Veterans treatment courts in Massachusetts show promising results

Edward W. Brooke courthouse in Boston, Mass., Dec. 20, 2019. Photo by Hannah Rogers/ BU News Service

By Hannah Rogers and Aaron Halford
BU News Service

It’s 10 a.m. on a Friday in Courtroom 14 of the Edward W. Brooke Courthouse in Boston. Three veterans await the arrival of Judge Eleanor Sinnott, who presides over the Boston Veterans Treatment Court each week. The judge is there to talk to the men about their progress in the program and make sure they are on track to graduate. 

In a reassuring voice, Sinnott asks each veteran how he is doing and what he has planned for the holidays. All three answer respectfully, and the session is over in 15 minutes. 

The Boston court is one of six voluntary, specialized courts in Massachusetts meant to reduce the incarceration and re-offense, or recidivism, rates of veterans while helping them address issues including substance abuse and mental health problems, court officials say. The Massachusetts courts are located in Dedham, Boston, Lawrence, Framingham, Holyoke and most recently, Brockton. 

The two most common offenses for veterans in the court system are drinking and driving and assault, explained Jason Thomas, the Veterans Programs coordinator for Massachusetts. However, he said the courts have seen everything. And officials try to help find solutions for problems, including homelessness, unemployment and mental health problems.

“We don’t want people to continue to commit crime,” Thomas said. “And we don’t want people to continue to be incarcerated. Not only for the benefit of the veteran — the individual — but also for the benefit of the greater society.”

Thomas said members of the treatment court pose a serious risk to reoffend because of the mental and substance abuse issues they often have.

As someone who was in the military on active duty for seven years and the reserves for 12, Thomas knows from experience some of the issues these veterans face.

“I understand where a lot of these guys are coming from,” he said.

The treatment courts also appoint mentors who are veterans to members of the program for additional support. Sinnott, the judge who has presided over Boston’s Veteran Treatment Court since 2014, stressed the importance of mentors to help veterans through the program. As a Navy veteran, she said she understands why it helps.

“The mentors in the program are a battle buddy,” Sinnott said. “They’re basically there to be a good friend.”

Sinnott became involved with the treatment court after being approached by the chief justice of the Boston Municipal Court at the time, Charles Johnson. Sinnott said she decided to preside over the specialty court partly because of her experience as an intelligence officer for the U.S. Navy.

“That’s when I learned of the terrible things vets see and go through,” Sinnott said. 

First established in Massachusetts in 2012, the one to two-year programs are already seeing successes in their efforts to reduce recidivism rates among veterans involved with the courts.

More than 100 veterans have graduated from the program since it opened, court officials said, and the recidivism rate is about 30%–half that of other people in this high risk population. Court officials acknowledge the numbers are small, but say the signs are positive.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve been at a graduation where the participants speak and they say, ‘You gave me my life back,’” said retired Judge Mary Hogan Sullivan, who formerly presided over the treatment courts. “It really is quite a moving thing.” 

The first veteran’s treatment court was created in Buffalo, New York, in 2008 and has served as a model across the country. The sessions aim to improve public safety while addressing issues suffered by veterans, including anxiety, depression, traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder. They bring together community-based providers, veteran’s services and court officials. 

Sullivan said she learned of the program after wandering into a session about the special courts at the National Association of Drug Court Professionals’ annual conference in 2010. She heard how a clerk in Buffalo, who was a veteran, talked to a person in front of a judge who wasn’t succeeding, she said. 

“The clerk was able to sort of reach that part of him that used to be proud, used to be an accomplished person, and said ‘You can get back to the way you were,’’’ she said. “And that was what started the process.”

Motivated by the origin story of the program, Sullivan said she brought together a team – including a prosecutor, a defense attorney and treatment providers — and started the first Massachusetts court in Dedham District Court. She now oversees the veterans courts as a specialty court director for the District Court.

Since their beginning, more than 400 veterans treatment courts have opened, serving some 15,000 veterans, said Chris Deutsch, a spokesperson for Justice for Vets, who conducts training on county procedures for drug courts.

“This nation has an obligation to take care of our veterans, even those who come into contact with the justice system due to issues stemming from their service,” Deutsch said. “We must ensure every veteran in need has access to these life-saving programs.”

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