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The Trenches at Home: Veteran Treatment Courts and the Importance of Veteran Mentors

In July 2011, David B. Muhlhausen, Ph.D. and Research Fellow in Empirical Policy Analysis from The Heritage Foundation delivered testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee about the effectiveness of drug treatment courts, specifically with a focus on veterans. Dr. Muhlhausen told the committee, “Congress should consider reforming the [Drug Court Discretionary Grant program] to focus entirely on reimbursing state and local drug courts that serve recently returned combat veterans.” In his testimony, he discussed numerous empirical studies (55 in all) that evaluated the effectiveness of drug courts for civilians, which have been around for almost 20 years. Yet, since veteran treatment courts have only been around since 2008, there simply hasn’t been enough time to publish the kind of study that would empirically prove that VTCs work.

It is in light of the above fact, the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) and the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts are conducting a study of the 13 separate VTCs from the seven longest-running programs. Dr. Fred Cheesman, a man of average height with long brown hair hanging past his chin and a smile so big it’s funny (considering his last name is pronounced “Cheese Man”), spoke to a group at the Vet Court Con, in order to report on what they’ve discovered thus far. Other than his long hair and grin, he dressed like a stereotypical professor in a tweed suit, somewhat rumpled. Although, he would be spotted after-hours wearing jeans, heavy boots, and a black-leather motorcycle jacket looking more like a band’s road manager than Principal Court Research Consultant with the NCSC.

Dr. Cheesman said that those who run VTCs may need “to decide are we treatment courts or are we courts for vets?” The question came to him when he was observing VTCs and saw offender after offender standing at parade rest before the judge and speaking respectfully, a scene that made him think “these are not drug courts.” He didn’t elaborate, but one might guess civilian drug court offenders lack that military bearing. Karen Blackburn, Program Administration for Pennsylvania Problem Solving Courts and Dr. Cheesman’s co-presenter, said that this study was the first time that they approached evaluating the effectiveness of any problem-solving court by looking at a population (e.g. veterans) rather than categorizing by the offense.

The crowd listened quietly for most of the presentation, until Dr. Cheesman made a statement that was not meant to be controversial, but stopped the presentation in its tracks. One of the things unique to VTCs is that offenders are paired with a veteran mentor who helps them through the program. Many think of these mentors as being akin to a sponsor in a 12-step program, but it’s not addiction that mentors have in common with the offenders, it’s the military. Eric Gonzales, a Marine and VTC graduate from California, compared them instead to NCOs. They motivate, if only because the offender doesn’t want to “let them down.” However, Dr. Cheesman said that he did not think mentors “necessarily need to be required for a [VTC] to work.”

Throughout the session, they had been taking questions so at least a dozen hands immediately shot up. They were court administrators, judges, and veteran mentors themselves. All said that Dr. Cheesman was incorrect, then provided a specific example of how mentors had positively affected their courts. In fact, Judge Robert Russell who founded the first veteran court in Buffalo, NY, told Issue Hawk there wouldn’t be a veterans’ court if not for those first veteran mentors who helped him get the program off-the-ground.

Dr. Cheesman stayed true to his name and never stopped smiling. In between remarks from the crowd, he pointed out that these stories—while convincing—were anecdotal and he operated in the realm of the empirical, facts and figures and metrics that can be measured. One man who worked for a court in rural Pennsylvania said, that the bond between combat veterans “is a bond unlike anything else,” making it perhaps the most crucial element in the process.

Image via NACDP Facebook

About the author

Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. Along with news and current events, he writes about parenting, art, and personal stories. His serial fiction story "The Prophet Hustle" is available at JukePop.com and a forthcoming independent ebook about the cam-modeling industry "Dirty Little Windows" will be available later this summer.