Today is Veterans Day at the Criminal Justice Center. So is every Wednesday, when it's time for Veterans Court, the Hon. and U.S. Army Reserve Capt. Patrick F. Dugan presiding.
Established in March by state Supreme Court Justices Ronald D. Castille and Seamus P. McCaffery, both decorated veterans, the court is one of three in the state, and almost 20 nationwide, exclusively handling veterans' misdemeanor cases.
It's already a success, a "problem-solving" court, like drug court and mental health court, designed to expedite assistance and avoid costly legal delays and jail time. Defendants range from age 20 (Iraq) to 80 (Korea), but the cases are remarkably sad and similar - virtually all male, charged with driving under the influence, disorderly conduct, possession, spousal abuse.
"A vast majority of the defendants are involved with drugs and alcohol," Dugan says. They need treatment and attention.
"I finished the ninth grade," says an Army veteran, picked up for possession. He looks as if his best years are decades behind him.
"I believe you attended the University of Vietnam," says Dugan, who speaks respectfully to all veterans. "You need to clean up. You've been there. You've seen some crazy stuff in your life. This is illegal. You've been through too much to go through that. So step up."
Normally, the wheels of justice grind slow. That is not the case in Veterans Court, where 25 cases are adjudicated in two hours.
"In most courtrooms, it takes a long time to get a diversion program to kick in because of the sheer size of the bureaucracies," says Dugan, a former infantryman and paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne, who later served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He may also be, quite possibly, the only judicial candidate who ran partially on an "I hate the Dallas Cowboys" platform.
"It can take six months for a diversion program to kick in," he says. "Here, it's almost instantly. Some veterans start the program before I've heard the case."
This is thanks, in large part, to the work of Rebecca Hicks of the Department of Veterans Affairs, who works in Courtroom 1003 Wednesdays along with Kelley Hodge of the District Attorney's Office, public defender Brunilda Vargas, and a trio of proud, elegant veteran mentors sitting in the front bench, waiting to help.
"She's outstanding. I can't commend Rebecca enough for the job she's doing," Dugan says of the soft-spoken social worker. "She goes to prison to meet with these people. We're blessed to have her in the room."
Veterans represent a tenth of the jail population, according to the VA, the majority charged with nonviolent offenses. All legal and government entities present in the courtroom share the same goals: to get these men help before they seriously hurt others, while keeping them out of jail.
Veterans Court is also there to help defendants from slipping further and becoming homeless. A third of all men on the street are believed to have served in the military, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.
"The majority of our veterans are really grateful," says Hicks. The Philadelphia office assists 60,000 veterans annually, a third of them for behavioral health issues, and drug and alcohol abuse. "We're trying to turn a negative set of circumstances into a positive, life-changing experience. I see the veterans as quickly as I can after their first hearing. Sometimes, the very next day." After each case, Hicks beckons the veteran to her table and in her old-fashioned daybook schedules an assessment appointment.
"Obviously, we're in favor of any program that aids our clients," says Assistant Public Defender Charles Cunningham. "We certainly think people who have served our country are entitled to some special consideration. Sometimes the reason they're in this position is because of service to this country."
Veterans Court is able "to provide therapeutic assistance while reducing the risk of recidivism," says Hodge, who is chief of the district attorney's Municipal Court unit. "How an individual does with treatment dictates whether he 'graduates' out of the system. What benefit is it to us if he goes into jail and serves his time but is never treated for alcoholism?"
One Navy veteran, 54, returns to court after his third DUI offense and detox treatment at the VA's Coatesville facility. "I've been in trouble with alcohol all my life. You've saved my life," he tells the court, the public defender requesting that his name not be published. "My life was going right down the drain. You're giving me the tools to get my life back. Hospitalization is the best thing that could happen to me."
Dugan addresses three defendants, all charged with DUI. "This is like shooting a gun into a crowd. I've read your files and, between you guys, the places you saw, the things that you've done, the ribbons you have, you've done so much," he says.
"You guys are the good guys. I expect more of you," Dugan says. "So don't be coming back into my courtroom because I'll hold you to a higher standard. And I will hammer you. And you would expect that of me."
All three defendants stand at military attention, nodding their heads in unison.