Veterans treatment courts are the brainchild of Judge Robert Russell, an associate judge in Buffalo’s City Court. During the early 1990s, Russell helped to establish the now highly successful drug and mental health treatment courts, which connect defendants to treatment services as a standard part of court processing and provided the inspiration and structure for the veterans courts.
One day in 2006, Russell noticed a sad, lethargic veteran in his mental health court, and asked two veterans who worked at the court to talk to him. After the meeting, the veteran “looked different — his posture was different, he stood more erect,” says Russell. “He indicated he was going to try harder to work on his problems.”
Russell reasoned that such peer support could go a long way toward helping veteran defendants in general, including the large numbers seen in the drug and mental health courts. In 2007, he spoke with the medical director of the Buffalo VA Medical Center and its all-veteran advisory board, asking what they thought about setting aside a day each month to focus exclusively on veterans and their needs. They responded enthusiastically, volunteering to help in whatever way they could.
Soon after the first veterans treatment court was held in 2008, federal VA officials decided to create a related program, Veterans Justice Outreach, one of a large number of VA outreach programs that address issues including homelessness, mental health and substance abuse. Launched in 2009, it mandated that each VA medical center designate a veterans justice outreach coordinator to work with veterans involved in the criminal justice system, including veterans courts.