As we work to improve veterans’ employment, we must also seek fairness in the criminal justice system
With more than one million service men and women returning from active duty in the next few years, we as a society face the challenge of helping these veterans with their re-entry into civilian life. A major component of this effort is employment, and that’s where VetsBridge.com comes in, with its career-matching service based on a proprietary algorithm designed to unite returning veterans with employers seeking the unique skills they offer. This system simplifies the search and makes it easier for veterans to find their next opportunity.
VetsBridge.com is making its technology available to veterans throughout the country free of charge and to companies and employers who are seeking to match veterans with civilian careers. Programs such as this are badly needed, given that there some 570,000 unemployed veterans in the U.S.
But employment is only one of the challenges facing our returning veterans. Unfortunately, some of these veterans find themselves facing charges in the civilian criminal justice system, and many of the cases can be linked to service-related trauma. In 2013 there were 700,00 veterans in America’s prisons and jails, many of whom were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, or alcohol and drug abuse. Add to these grim statistics the large number of unemployed veterans and the picture becomes clear.
Veterans Defense Program lends a hand
In New York State, the incarceration issue is being addressed head-on by the Veterans Defense Program (VDP). Launched in spring of 2014 by the New York State Defenders Association, the program provides training, support, and legal assistance to foster informed and zealous representation of veterans and service members in the state’s court system.
With the goal of “defending those who have defended us,” the VDP assists public defense attorneys in taking a treatment-oriented approach when representing veterans suffering from the invisible wounds of war, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and depression. The program provides a second chance for veterans who have lost their way and facilitates a treatment-oriented mitigation approach focusing on restoration and rehabilitation,
VDP has assisted or trained nearly 1,000 veterans and public defenders representing veterans in criminal court and family court systems. This includes legal assistance in over 100 veteran cases; comprehensive training for 600 lawyers defending veterans; and expert referrals and information for over 150 veterans.
The VDP recently issued a progress report outlining its activities and accomplishments. The report includes information on VDP initiatives to educate public defenders and their staff members about the unique issues facing veterans, and the program’s role as a resource and consulting group for attorneys who represent veterans. The report also provides case studies of individuals who have ben represented by the VDP and testimonials from veterans, government officials, public defenders, and organizations.
Among the case studies in the report is that of a young Afghanistan-deployed veteran who was held for two years in an upstate New York jail without trial for his first offense—burglary with two friends while under the influence of alcohol. The incident had occurred a few months after he returned from a combat zone with untreated post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and substance abuse. The initial judge in the case sentenced the veteran to eight years in prison.
The VDP challenged the ruling and was successful in having another judge grant a motion to hold a sentencing hearing in which mental health experts and military specialists will testify on his behalf. “Finally, after two years, this young veteran will have his day in court and an opportunity for treatment and justice,” notes the report.
“The VDP is committed to giving veterans access to the best possible legal representation. Veterans with battle-borne illnesses need treatment and an alternative resolution process in the criminal justice system,” states the report. “The VDP’s goal is to ensure that each veteran has an effective advocate; each veteran’s story is properly presented to a judge, jury, and prosecutor.”
Individuals, companies, and organizations can support VDP by making a tax-deductible contribution to the New York State Defenders Association Veterans Defense Program. The New York State Defenders Association is a not-for-profit, membership organization that has provided support to New York's public defense community since 1967. Its mission is to improve the quality and scope of publicly supported legal representation to low-income people.
For more information on the Veteran’s Defense Program, contact Gary A. Horton, director, 585-219-4862, firstname.lastname@example.org; or Art C. Cody, USN (retired), legal director, at 201-312-4644, email@example.com.