The Trenches at Home: The Father of Veteran Treatment Courts
The first annual Veteran Court Conference in Washington D.C. had its share of “celebrities” in attendance. There were lawmakers, the Secretary of the VA, and even the new director of Justice for Vets—the nonprofit organization responsible for the conference—Melissa Fitzgerald was a long-time cast member on the television classic The West Wing. However, the biggest celebrity in attendance, at least with this crowd, was a tall, soft-spoken Judge from Buffalo, New York.
Judge Robert Russell was first named to the bench in 1991, after serving both as a prosecutor and defense attorney. While on the bench in those first years, he began to notice that the same people kept coming back over again and again, some stretching back to his days as a lawyer. After learning about the first drug treatment court in the country, the Miami Drug Court established in 1989. When the problem with drug use, specifically crack cocaine, exploded in the 1980s, Russell recognized the initial response was failing before most others. “Our response [to the drug epidemic],” he says, “was to create stiffer penalties in the hope that it would have an impact,” in reducing drug use. When he saw that it didn’t, he adapted the Miami program for Buffalo. Later, he also helped bring about the Buffalo Mental Health Treatment court sometime after 2002.
In 2008, Judge Russell began to notice something else: a preponderance of veterans in court. Some were struggling with substance abuse issues and others were in need of mental health services, something they had not been able to obtain from the VA. After partnering with Vietnam Veterans he knew from his community, Judge Russell suggested setting one day per month aside for “veterans’ court.” From the beginning Russell says, “it was fascinating to me to see individuals celebrating their sobriety in a court room.”
Judge Russell has since become the most recognizable name associated with veterans’ courts across the country. While some courts are applying their own models—such as Allegheny County, Pennsylvania’s Veterans Court which was one of the first established after Buffalo—most are sticking to the model designed by Russell, one borne from the insight of many years of experience. For Judge Russell, he loves that his court has become a place where citizens can seek help instead of receiving punishment. “Treatment court changed the paradigm from the extent that participants in treatment court get to have an open dialogue with judge who had seemed so removed before in the past,” Russell says not without some pride.
Anytime there is a new idea of a new concept,” in the court system there is skepticism from those who dislike change in what they know, such as from prosecutors or some law enforcement advocates. However the role Russell envisions for problem-solving courts across the country is the minimization of “the adversarial process.” Russell sees his model as being the best alternative to incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders, simply because of the success he’s seen anecdotally in his courts and those across the country.
Of course the record of success for problem-solving courts are not simply anecdotal. In 2011, Research Fellow in Empirical Policy Analysis for the Heritage Foundation David Muhlhausen delivered testimony to the U.S. Senate on his meta-analysis of 55 studies of drug treatment courts, he did point out that the results were promising, but urged caution. “While a large number of studies find that drug courts reduce recidivism and drug use,” he told the Subcommittee, “many of these studies have significant shortcomings in scientific rigor.” According to Muhlhausen, while treatment courts for civilians still remain unproven “recent combat veterans with substance abuse problems may benefit greatly from drug courts. In these cases, limited financial assistance provided to state and local drug courts that serve combat veterans may be warranted.” A study of VTCs themselves is currently being undertaken in Pennsylvania, but to Judge Russell it will only confirm what he already knows.
It was impossible to get Judge Russell alone to talk throughout the conference. Everywhere he went people called out to him—“Hey, Judge!”—and he’d respond warmly, shaking hands and often going in for the hug. His interview with Veteran Journal was cut short when a judge and a woman from the Department of Defense (who is working to adapt the program for the active military) approached to say hello and take a picture with him. Later, Judge Russell was in a conference room that had just cleared out and told Veteran Journal, “We’re gonna sit down right here and finish that talk.” Before he’d even settled in his chair, a woman at the front of the room asked if he could offer his opinion on her part of their joint presentation. He was then interrupted by another conference attendee who was leaving to say goodbye and pose for another picture. A lot of times, a man’s ideas are bigger and more popular than the man himself, except when it comes to Judge Robert Russell.
Image via NADCP Facebook