BUFFALO, New York |
(Reuters) - From the minute Judge Robert Russell walks into Buffalo Veterans Court, it is clear this is no ordinary courtroom.
"Hello everybody," the judge says.
"Good afternoon, Judge," everyone replies in unison.
The first defendant steps forward, and Russell asks him what branch of the military he served in.
"Navy, sir," he says, and the room bursts into applause.
Buffalo's Veterans Court, the first of its kind when it began three years ago, has proven so successful it is a model for the 46 such courts that have sprung up since in 20 states, largely to address the needs of veterans returning home from Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam.
Among the most recent, a veterans' court was started less than a month ago in New York City.
So successful is Buffalo's Veterans Court that it boasts a zero recidivism rate -- none of the participants have been rearrested and returned.
Specialized courts for drugs, alcohol, domestic violence, gambling and other issues have existed for years. But this concept -- akin to a rehabilitation program blended with legal consequences -- focuses on issues associated with U.S. veterans who often suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, brain trauma or chemical dependency.
All the defendants in the Buffalo courtroom are veterans. By agreeing to treatment and rehabilitation, they avoid jail for the crimes that landed them in the court system.
The program aims to create a therapeutic environment that fosters rehabilitation, "so my style is somewhat paternal and somewhat empathetic," Russell said.
One success story is Manuel Welch, 53, a veteran of the U.S. Navy who grappled for decades with drug and alcohol abuse and addiction and made numerous trips in and out of the city court system.
He is one of 51 former servicemen to graduate from Russell's court, avoiding jail time for a string of petit larceny, cocaine possession and other crimes.
After a 12-step program, counseling and drug and alcohol testing, not only is he clean and sober but he has become a mentor to other program participants. He credits the Veterans Court with his recovery.