Criminal courts tailored to veterans multiply as wars wind down

Liz Goodwin
·Senior National Affairs Reporter
Jaime Pagan, 33, sits on the stoop of his apartment building in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn last week. Pagan is about to finish veterans court-mandated rehab. (Photo by Gordon Donovan/Yahoo News)
Jaime Pagan, 33, sits on the stoop of his apartment building in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn last week. Pagan is about to finish veterans court-mandated rehab. (Photo by Gordon Donovan/Yahoo News)

The first time Jaime Pagan got arrested, he was lost and alone.

He had been out partying with his buddies from childhood, something he was doing more and more often to delay the dreaded hours spent alternating between trying to sleep and enduring vivid nightmares about being redeployed to Mosul, Iraq, with his unit.

Pagan was speeding around Long Island at 4 a.m., wondering how he could have driven so far off course from Brooklyn, when he saw police lights in his rearview mirror. The officer pulled him over and tested his blood alcohol level, which was nearly twice the legal limit.

For the first time in his life, Pagan was in real trouble. He was arrested, fingerprinted and thrown in the county jail overnight. The next day, he waited in a long line of offenders before a judge sentenced him to a rigorous six-month alcohol treatment program, cutting him a break since he was a first-time lawbreaker. Each time Pagan appeared in court for his monthly checkup, a new prosecutor, judge and even defender seemed to appear by his side, giving the ex-soldier a feeling of anonymity. No one asked if he had served in the military. 

At the group therapy sessions he was mandated to attend that year, Pagan didn’t mention his service, his intense battle stress or his dread about his nightly twisted dreams. “I didn’t think anybody would understand,” he said. Pagan made it through his six months of treatment without ever opening up to anyone in the group. At the end of his experience with a criminal justice system supposedly meant to reform him, Pagan felt more lost and alone. 

Nevertheless, he resolved to not get in trouble again. He showed up at the factory where he made five different kinds of alarms every day, trying to ignore the splitting headaches that occasionally made him misassemble the products. Some of his co-workers teased him about his military service, making Army jokes and painting Pagan as uptight, but he never gave in to his urges to retaliate.

A loud noise could ruin Pagan’s whole day: If someone slammed a pallet of material in the hall, it rattled him, his heart pounding for a half-hour. Little things could send him back to his 11 months in Mosul, in northern Iraq, where he spent every day afraid that he and his fellow soldiers would be attacked. He remembered the time he was out on patrol with his unit when insurgents fired on them for a half-hour, bullets nearly grazing him.

Jamie Pagan at his home in Brooklyn, NY on June 23, 2014. (Photo by Gordon Donovan/Yahoo News)
Jamie Pagan at his home in Brooklyn, NY on June 23, 2014. (Photo by Gordon Donovan/Yahoo News)

For the first time since he was discharged in 2006, Pagan went to the nearest Veterans Affairs treatment center in Brooklyn and told them about his symptoms. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and given a 40 percent disability rating a year later, entitling him to some compensation from the military. But the treatment wasn’t helping: He still couldn’t sleep and struggled with depression. Sometimes Pagan skipped his medications, wanting to tough it out and get better on his own. He continued to seek distraction: drinking late at night with childhood friends.

In January 2013, four years after his first arrest, Pagan was busted again for drunken driving. He made an illegal U-turn five minutes from his Brooklyn home, and saw the police cruiser's flashing lights again. With his growing criminal record, the veteran now faced at least a year in jail. 

When he appeared in a Brooklyn court, his stomach was a pit of dread. But something seemed different. He was greeted by a petite and cheerful judge named Jo Ann Ferdinand. She asked him how he was feeling and seemed genuinely concerned about his future, Pagan recalls. She told him he could either serve the time or complete a special veteran-focused rehab program within 18 months. She warned him that if he failed, prison would still be waiting for him. But if he succeeded, he could have a second chance. 


Pagan had stumbled into what is rapidly becoming a separate criminal justice system for veterans, one that sprouted up from nothing just in the past six years. Nearly every state now has at least one veterans treatment court, formed by judges who noticed an influx of young service personnel appearing before them on charges stemming from drug or mental health issues picked up during their years at war.

The courts are designed to give returning warriors a break, and most of the judges work closely with VA employees who are tasked with helping veterans who are imprisoned or facing charges get access to addiction and mental health treatment.

Though they’re still new, the courts have been embraced at the highest levels of the federal criminal justice system. Attorney General Eric Holder visited one of the four federal veterans courts in January to draw attention to the work they’re doing to prevent recidivism, and the Justice Department and other federal agencies have poured millions of dollars into funding state and local versions of the courts around the country.

There are now more than 150 veterans courts, and hundreds more are in the planning stages. Their numbers could reach 1,000 in just a few years, experts say. 

(Yahoo News)
(Yahoo News)

Research on the nascent system is too new to be conclusive, but preliminary data suggest that recidivism rates are lower for veterans who go through the special courts. It’s hard to know why, but advocates think it’s in part because the courts connect veterans to government services they’re entitled to. (The VA pays for eligible veterans’ substance abuse and mental health counseling.) The courts are also designed on the principle that veterans are special and respond better to care that involves other people who also served. Most of the courts offer a mentoring program to match ex-soldiers in the system with veterans in the community who can relate to their experiences. Ferdinand says the presence of other ex-soldiers in the courts foils the “no one understands what I’ve been through” mentality of some vets. 

Most of the courts are nonadversarial: The judge, the prosecutor and the defender all work together to create a treatment plan for the veteran, who must plead guilty to be diverted there from the regular system. Unlike in a traditional court, where judges rarely talk directly to the accused, Ferdinand asks the defendants how they feel about their lives, what their problems are and how they’re doing.

But it’s not all touchy-feely. Ferdinand and other veterans-focused judges get offenders on board by offering them a choice: Stick with the intensely supervised program and get better or serve jail time. Pagan has to undergo weekly drug tests, appear in court often to report on his progress, attend three counseling and addiction sessions a week, and periodically meet with a veteran mentor from the community. Most judges allow vets to mess up a few times — miss an appointment, fail a drug test — but if they ever believe the veteran is not making progress, they will send him or her to jail. This carrot-and-stick approach, along with the fellowship of other veterans in therapy, is what they believe gets them results.


The courts’ most passionate advocates are motivated by the idea that the country needs to do a better job caring for the men and women who served in our most recent wars than it did for Vietnam veterans, too many of whom ended up homeless and destitute.

Veterans stood up for us, now let us stand up for the veterans,” Judge Robert Russell told a ballroom full of VA employees and veterans court staff at their second annual national conference in Anaheim, California, earlier this month, organized by Justice for Vets. The judge, who opened up the first-ever veterans treatment court in 2008 in Buffalo, New York, told the group that Vietnam vets say they wish they had these courts when they were first returning home. Everyone applauded; some stood up and cheered. 

Five years ago, the VA made ending homelessness among vets by 2015 a priority. VA researchers found that incarceration was the top predictor of homelessness — so they trained their sights on jails and prisons.

Now, the sprawling agency has hundreds of employees who use military databases to scour arrest records and prison logs. These Veterans Justice Outreach specialists, or VJOs, have found tens of thousands of jailed or arrested veterans and then drawn up alternate, VA-funded treatment plans for them. Judges — even those who are not involved in a veterans court — are often happy to release the veteran early on the condition of treatment, according to VJO Jim Haskell, who works in Baltimore, Maryland. In Buffalo, incarcerated veterans are now housed together in a separate wing of the jail, so that VA staff can more easily visit them.

The VA and veterans court judges want to prevent any of the 2.5 million men and women deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade from ending up in jail or on the streets. One in five recent veterans has major depression or PTSD, which can lead to substance abuse and violence if left untreated. 

“If our experience is anything like Vietnam, we will see an increasing number of veterans who are presenting with PTSD conditions and I think a fair number of them are going to wind up in the legal system,” said Haskell. He added that many young returning soldiers have not yet sought help for their mental health issues.

“Usually by the time they come to us or wind up getting incarcerated, they’ve been on a downward spiral for a long time,” he said. 

One rock-bottom case of Haskell’s was Vietnam veteran Jerome Anderson, who was serving 14 years for drug distribution before Haskell found him and entered him into a residential drug treatment program in December. Anderson became a morphine addict while in Vietnam — he and his friends shot up the government-provided morphine packs as a way to escape what many considered a senseless war. When he got back to the states, he switched to heroin — always searching for that initial morphine high. 

A defendant appears before Judge Robert Russell, who opened up the first-ever veterans court in Buffalo, New York. (REUTERS/Doug Benz)
A defendant appears before Judge Robert Russell, who opened up the first-ever veterans court in Buffalo, New York. (REUTERS/Doug Benz)

“I got that numbing effect and fell in love with it,” he said. The drugs also helped him deal with his PTSD — referred to as shell shock then. He was a drug addict and con man for decades, he says. Society was callous to Vietnam vets and offered them little help. 

No special criminal justice path for veterans existed when Anderson came back in 1978 and started searching for heroin.

“They hated us and they hated the war,” Anderson recalls. “There was a big draft so we had to go. But soldiers were treated badly.”

Anderson has now been clean for six months, the longest stretch since he returned from Vietnam.


Until about 20 years ago, the vast majority of courts considered drug or alcohol addictions like Anderson’s or Pagan’s as deliberate criminal actions and lifestyles that should be punished. Veterans courts are an outgrowth of a larger movement by individual judges who, disillusioned with “tough on crime” policies that seemed to just be filling prisons, started asking if hard time was really the answer to all crimes.

“The reason why we punish people is because we believe that if you punish someone, the pain of the punishment will prevent them from repeating that conduct,” said Justin Holbrook, a veterans advocate who has researched treatment courts. 

But judges found that for some people, the punishment did not have that effect. Ferdinand, the judge who handled Pagan’s case, presided over a traditional criminal court for a decade in Brooklyn. “Whether it was a drug crime or a DWI, you really didn’t look at why someone committed a crime,” Ferdinand said. “And in fact in law school you’re taught that why didn’t matter. The fact that they’re a drug addict you wouldn’t consider.”

Ferdinand sent many people to jail for crimes that she now believes would be better treated as a health issue. The same addicts ended up in front of her again and again, undeterred by prison. “I actually believed that recovery was a matter of will,” she said. If someone was a junkie, it’s because they wanted to lead a life of crime, she thought.

Now, Ferdinand doles out more hugs than jail time for drug crimes. She decided to move to the Brooklyn Drug Treatment Court in 1996, one of the first of its kind. Individual judges began opening up specialty drug courts in the late '80s and '90s.


Once Ferdinand started thinking about why the people in her court were breaking the law, she could never go back. And two years ago, she decided there were enough veterans showing up on drug-related charges that it would make sense for them to have their own court, as well. Most veterans courts are run by judges who also preside over another specialty court, like a drug court, according to a survey of several dozen courts done by University of Arkansas professor Julie Baldwin.


But the courts are not without their critics. 

Though the courts seek to treat instead of punish veterans, some law professors have raised questions about whether the special system might actually violate defendants’ rights. Because most of the courts require them to plead guilty from the very beginning, veterans don’t have much legal ground to stand on if there are irregularities in how their cases are handled.

At the national conference of veterans court professionals earlier this month, Judge Michael Barrasse, who presides over a veterans court in Scranton, Pennsylvania, warned attendees in one panel that “nothing is going to bring down your treatment court faster than an appeal that says you aren’t recognizing rights of defendants.”

Veterans can end up spending more time under court supervision if they enter a veterans court than if they had stayed in the regular system. That’s because if they fail the treatment program, they end up serving the jail time they were originally in for on top of the time they spent in treatment.

“The law on problem-solving courts is still really, really spotty,” said Eric Miller, a law professor at Loyola who researches the courts.

The courts are also shaped by judges’ personalities and thus can vary widely from one another. Some judges take only veterans who’ve been deployed in combat zones; others will take anyone who has ever served. Some take people who have committed violent crimes; others will deal with only low-level nonviolent offenses. Some of the courts put veterans against the wall instead of in the traditional benches facing the judge so that those suffering from PTSD don’t have to worry about people sneaking up behind them. One court even created a “Veterans Creed” that everyone recites at the end of each session.

The decision of some courts to hear domestic violence cases and other violent charges is also controversial. Some domestic violence experts do not believe batterers can be helped by treatment, and they worry the courts could put their victims at risk. There’s also little oversight of the courts, and their lack of uniformity makes it hard to study their efficacy as a whole.

“No one knows what veterans court is because veterans court is whatever the judge says it is,” Miller said. “It could be a mental health court or a drug court or a PTSD court.”

Jamie Pagan at his home in Bensonhurst in Brooklyn, N.Y., on June 23, 2014. (Photo by Gordon Donovan/Yahoo News)
Jamie Pagan at his home in Bensonhurst in Brooklyn, N.Y., on June 23, 2014. (Photo by Gordon Donovan/Yahoo News)


For Pagan, though, the special system offered him a way out of prison. He is about to finish his year of court-mandated treatment in August and plans to enroll in college afterward, possibly to study satellite technology.

Sitting in the living room of the Brooklyn apartment he shares with his mother, Pagan explains that the opportunity to stay out of jail saved his life. He’s jittery and nervous, legs shaking as a photographer tries to catch him in a still moment. As soon as he finishes his treatment in August, Pagan is going to apply for a passport and travel to Jamaica, maybe, or Costa Rica. The only foreign country he’s ever been to is Iraq. 

The mandated counseling has helped him deal with his anxiety, he says. Unlike the first time he got in trouble, when he stayed nearly silent during six months of group therapy, Pagan feels like he can talk about his war experience and how it’s changed him. “It’s so easy to talk, because we all relate,” he said of his group, which includes mostly young veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He’s decided to continue attending the sessions even after they’re no longer mandated.

Having a different criminal justice system for veterans makes sense to Pagan, because he feels he’s been changed forever by his service. He needs a special court for the unique mental health challenges he’ll face for the rest of his life. Last year, the VA upped his PTSD level to 70 percent disability, acknowledging the severity of his condition. He still has nightmares and insomnia.

“I think veterans should have their own separate thing in everything,” Pagan says. “You send us to war. We become these robots [of] the government. We had to do what they say.

“When we get back, it’s not easy,” he said.