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New York State’s Veterans Treatment Courts

by Ed Lyon

The U.S. has been involved in Middle Eastern wars since 1990’s Operation Desert Storm until the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan under President Biden in 2020. Consequently, there are around 19 million veterans in the country today, many of them with combat experience, and many of those suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”). It is not unusual for some PTSD sufferers to self-medicate with substances other than alcohol – substances that are highly illegal as well as highly addictive.

Once addicted to something like cocaine, heroin, or their more recently arrived synthetic cousins, the habit grows and with that growth comes higher costs. Addicts often turn to theft and even robbery to acquire the money needed to support their drug habits. Some of these wind up in trouble over those activities: the act of buying the drugs or engaging in activities during their self-medicated states such as driving under the influence.

The country’s general attitude toward its military service veterans has improved tremendously since the Vietnam conflict. Many people thank veterans for their service and think well of them overall. Likewise, understanding the problems unique to veterans with PTSD has allowed more leeway when veterans run afoul of the law. The first Veterans Treatment Courts (“VTC”) began in 2008 in Buffalo, New York, thanks to the work in drug treatment centers for veterans accomplished spearheaded by now retired Judge Robert Russell. There are currently around 600 of these specialized courts operating in the U.S., with New York State having 34 of them.

Entry into a New York VTC begins when a veteran is caught or later arrested for committing a felony crime. The defense attorney approaches the prosecutor who must first approve presenting the case to a VTC judge. If the judge approves, the defendant-veteran pleads guilty and is entered into a program tailored for the situation. When the program is successfully completed, the charge and conviction are dismissed.

Not as many criminal justice involved veterans take part in the VTC program as one might think. Former Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance’s staff claim to have accepted 200 defendant-veterans for VTC participation in the 5-year period from 2017 through 2021. Only 65 of those 200 defendant-veterans went through the program. There is no record of whether the remaining 135 defendant-veterans were rejected at some point by the assigned district attorney or judge or refused the program.

Edward Hernandez is a recent participant in the VTC program. A native New Yorker, he was raised on the city’s Lower East Side. He joined the U.S. Army in 1982 after his 18th birthday. At his duty assignment with the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, he began experimenting with drugs and stealing. This resulted in a court-martial in 1983. He was discharged from the Army in 1984.

Over the next 30 years, Hernandez dealt cocaine, used heroin, and stole from others. He became a multiple recidivist. Between his trips to prison, he garnered convictions for forgery, theft, and dealing drugs to support his heroin habit. His “aha” moment arrived when he overdosed at a Queens medical clinic. Medical personnel discovered a heartbeat of 34 per minute, which led to emergency surgery to install stents, followed by another surgery.

Hernandez was accepted into Judge Merchan’s VTC program in late September of 2022. Facing charges for possessing someone else’s credit card and identity theft, Hernandez left the court as one happy defendant and veteran after having wept in his seat over the chance the judge had given him to remakefor a new lease on his life.

Source: nytimes.com

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