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June 18, 2014

The veterans’ court graduation – an emotional experience

I have never seen so many offenders say thank-you in a court as I did this morning.  It was the first graduation ceremony of the Veterans’ Treatment Court in Ann Arbor.  Around 10 Veterans who participated in the programme (really a sentence) were congratulated for completing it, given certificates and each received a beautiful hand-made quilt made by a volunteer.  There were speeches from local dignitaries and, one by one, each veteran-offender thanked the court and its staff for helping them get back on their feet.  To a man, and one woman, they said that the court ordered programme gave them opportunities and services they would not have accessed otherwise. The whole thing was truly moving and it was easy to forget that they were talking about a very rigorous programme – of therapy, of no alcohol whatsoever and of sanctions for non compliance. Everyone who attended the ceremony was invited for drinks and cakes afterwards in the court building.

There is no doubt that such a court was unique to USA culture.  They have a greater proportion of ex military than in UK and a weaker mainstream welfare system.  But they do have a fair well funded veterans’ health and welfare system dedicated to that group.  Plenty of veterans fall through the cracks after discharge – they find it hard to cope without the structure of military life, and too often suffer mental health problems, drink too much and/or take drugs and commit crimes. When veteran offenders are convicted, probation officers filter them  into the court, where they can benefit from the specialist services available to them.

Its not an American idea that could be easily translated.  But the spirit behind it possibly could – of designing a programme to meet very particular needs, which is so supportive that those who complete it are deeply grateful for the court experience.  They seemed genuinely grateful to the Judge Christopher Easthope,  and he in turn was clearly proud that his court had achieved such positive outcomes.  Having spoken to and observed a number of these problem solving courts, it is clear that the personality of the judge is key.  They need to be committed to taking some risks, to engaging directly with offenders and to fighting for the services their offenders need.  They need to care.  Many English judges fit those criteria, but I’m not sure they are as able as US judges to use those skills, partly because we have so few problem solving courts.