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A Second Chance for Veterans
A troubled Iraq war veteran is getting a second chance, thanks to a group of judges, defense attorneys, probation officers and federal prosecutors in the Western District of New York. The district is the first in the nation to link veterans’ pretrial diversion cases with the local Veterans Court.
This war veteran served his country for nine years in the U.S. Army, with tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. But after allegedly assaulting a police officer and officials at the local Veterans Hospital and making threats, he faced a federal criminal complaint and a probable prison sentence. Instead, today he is receiving treatment and on his way to putting his life back on track.
This veteran’s case was the first federal criminal case of its kind in the Western District of New York to be referred to the City of Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court as part of a pre-trial diversion agreement. Pretrial diversion has been part of the federal judicial system longer than 20-year veteran Chief Probation Officer Anthony San Giacomo has worked in probation.
“It is an innovative way to handle a specialized problem,” San Giacomo said. “A percentage of our veterans are coming back with significant mental health, drug, and alcohol problems. In this case, as part of the diversion agreement, we supervise the defendant, but he is referred to Veterans Treatment Court where the presiding judge has experience in dealing with veterans. As I see it, we refer people out for drug and alcohol treatment. The Veterans Court is just another mode of treatment.”
Last year in the federal system, there were 1,077 pretrial diversions. They are an alternative to prosecution of an individual, who instead is placed under the supervision of a pretrial services or probation officer. The offender enters into a contract with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, pledging to meet certain conditions. If the conditions are not met, the case may be prosecuted —a strong incentive to the defendant to abide by the agreement.
“When the case started, the charges were potentially very serious,” said Magistrate Judge Jeremiah McCarthy (W.D. NY), who heard the original criminal complaint. “The young man was an Iraq war veteran and it was apparent from his demeanor that there was some kind of disconnect. I was sympathetic to his background and situation, but I had to be concerned about the risk to the public.”
“It took at least two months after he first appeared in court before the judge was satisfied he wasn’t a danger to himself or the community,” said Federal Defender Tracy Hayes. “During that time he had daily meetings with a therapist and a counselor. My office would check in daily to see how he was doing.” At the same time, Hayes was working with the district’s pretrial services officers to find a treatment program tailored towards veterans.
In fact, the Office of Probation and Pretrial Services in the Western District of New York had been working for months, in cooperation with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, on a pretrial diversion alternative just for veterans, an agreement that would include the Veterans Treatment Court.
“We handle a fair number of cases involving veterans, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Edward White. “Shortly after the Veterans Court was established, we began exploring the possibility that, when appropriate, we could refer cases to the court.”
It didn’t happen overnight. After working with the U.S. Attorneys Office, San Giacomo met with Buffalo City Court Judge Robert Russell, who heads the Veterans Treatment Court, to explain what the Office of Probation wanted to do.
“Judge Russell was more than happy to help us,” said San Giacomo. “There was a meeting with our Chief Judge William M. Skretny where we went over what the Veterans Treatment Court has to offer. We also talked to the Federal Defenders Office about jurisdiction and what they felt was fair.”
Skretny was very supportive. “The Veterans’ Court program assists veterans in getting proper treatment, mentors who can help them, and assistance with any military benefits from Veterans Hospital,” said Skretny. “In addition, participants in the program must remain sober, lead a law-abiding life, and secure a stable job, vocational training or schooling.”
A probation officer also closely supervises the case, even attending the participants’ appearances at the Veterans Treatment Court.
“The federal charges have been dismissed without prejudice,” McCarthy adds, “so if he doesn’t comply with the conditions of the diversion agreement, they can be reinstated. We all hope that won’t happen, but he does realize that he’s not totally free and clear right now.”
Referrals of veterans’ cases to the Veterans Treatment Court will depend upon individual circumstances and the defendant’s background.
“We aren’t the Department of Convictions,” said White, “we’re the Department of Justice. Our highest goal is to make sure justice is done. We are sympathetic to the plight of veterans and the impact their tours of duty may have had on them. We hope referring a case to the Veterans Court gives veterans a fair chance at making the most of their lives.”
“These veterans are coming back with very unique problems,” said San Giacomo. “If we can do something to help them reintegrate back into society in a positive way, that’s what we’re here to do. There was an incredible amount of cooperation between all the participants. At some point we just looked at each other and said, ‘this is the right thing to do.’”