Editor’s Note: The following is part II of “Hope on the Homefront,” a 10-part series about the struggles of the Ithaca area’s war veterans.

Read the series introduction here and part I, which detailed a crisis in the number of jailed local veterans, here.


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ITHACA, N.Y. — There is a proven way to drive down incarceration rates among veterans. Veterans Treatment Courts are described by experts as a “win-win-win” solution.

Recidivism rates for the formerly incarcerated are around 50 percent nationwide, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In counties that have these specialized courts, the likelihood of a veteran reoffending plummets. In Buffalo, like many other courts across the country, the recidivism rate is just 5 percent.

See related: Veterans treatment courts explained

“The county saves money, the jails are less crowded, and the veteran becomes a productive member of society again,” says Yelena Duterte, director of the Veterans Legal Clinic at Syracuse University College of Law. “VTCs are not a get-out-of-jail free card. The importance of these diversion programs cannot be overstated.”

These courts are yet to be implemented in Ithaca, but that could soon change.

See related: Incarcerated Tompkins veterans: the crisis seen through one woman’s eyes

After being contacted by the Ithaca Voice about this series, a group of local judges said they would meet this week to consider the feasibility of a court in our area.

“I have been very supportive of efforts by the judges in Elmira and Binghamton City Courts,” said Robert Mulvey, Administrative Judge of the Sixth Judicial District.

“These courts have been able to fold the VTC operation within their current operations without significant budget impacts. The main challenges to expansion are the current limitations of time and resources.”

Photos courtesy of Justice for Veterans
Photos courtesy of Justice for Veterans

“VTCs are not a get out of jail free card.”

Duterte says many counties worry VTCs will cost the county the time of a judge and court staff.

But she points out that funneling veterans on to a judge’s docket one afternoon, twice a month, costs a nominal amount.

In fact, a VTC would save our county money, experts say: not only does it reduce the number of defendants in county jail, the VA absorbs most of the treatment costs.

In addition, the Department of Justice offers a free two and-a-half day training session designed to get a VTC up and running. Justice For Vets, a division of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, provides further training and ongoing technical assistance.

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Treatment Courts reduce crowding in county jails

Capt. Ray Bunce runs the Tompkins County Jail on Warren Road. He would be receptive to any idea that would reduce overcrowding at the jail, he says.

At a recent interview, during jail visiting hours, he scrolled through the database on his computer: “I will have between 82 and 85 inmates by the end of today. The jail is built for 75. I can house up to 93 inmates. But in order to run a jail and classify it properly you are never going to be at maximum capacity, you are not going to have every bed full. I have a lot of people boarded out into other jails.

“From my perspective any time a person can be diverted from jail and given treatment that covers his law violation, that is a good thing,” said Bunce. “We have more inmates than we have room for.”

The first VTC opened in Buffalo in 2008

In 2008, the first VTC was created in Buffalo by Judge Robert Russell and his court coordinator, Hank Pirowski, a Vietnam veteran.  Jack O’Connor, also a Vietnam combat veteran, was brought in to set up the court’s mentor program. Russell had been running drug and mental health courts for several years and started seeing an increasing number of veterans – at one point he had 37 cases involving veterans.

O’Connor says it was a mental health case that “started this whole program” and led Russell to set aside a separate track in his courtroom for veterans.  O’Connor was – and still is – on the advisory board of the VA hospital in Buffalo.

Back in 2006, a Vietnam veteran who we will call “Mike” was failing in the system. He was in and out of jail for crimes connected to addiction and mental health disorders.

“Let’s just say he was not doing well,” says O’Connor. Russell knew the man was a Vietnam veteran and asked if Pirowski and O’Connor would talk to the man privately in the hallway outside the courtroom.

Mike wanted to connect with other Vietnam veterans who understood what he was going through. So O’Connor  arranged for him to meet with a support group for Vietnam veterans at the VA hospital twice a week.

When Mike came back to court, he was standing at “Parade Rest” — a military term, meaning the soldier stands to attention with his hands folded behind his back. His whole demeanor and attitude was transformed.

“That’s when we knew something had changed,” says O’Connor. “What happened in the hallway had worked. We looked at each other as if to say, ‘What the hell just happened here?’.”

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“The word is out”

Since then, 220 veterans courts have been set up nationally, serving 11,000 veterans; many of them have been advised and mentored by the people who started the Buffalo program. There are 180 graduates of the Buffalo VTC and only nine have been rearrested, a recidivism rate of 5 percent.

“It wasn’t really widely accepted in the beginning,” says O’Connor. “Not by other judges, nor by law enforcement. They thought we were just trying to give veterans a break.

“But the word is out that these courts are doing fantastic work – every judge within a 100  miles refers to us. I would be glad to help or advise any judge thinking about starting a Veterans Court in your area.”

Buffalo VTC Mentors talk about their role

YouTube video

O’Connor adds: “I wish they’d had this court back in the Vietnam era  – all the men who came back with severe mental health and drug issues would have been saved.  Many of them went right to jail.”

The success in Buffalo was not lost on Judge William Pelella of Binghamton.

He, alongside county, city and court officials worked together – with support from Judge Mulvey of Ithaca.  It was announced last month that Binghamton would open its own VTC.

“Veterans and their families face many issues: alcohol and substance abuse, mental illness, homelessness, unemployment and strained relationships,” Pelella says. “Our court will have the latest research, training and resources to assist the veterans who are dealing with these serious issues, and get them on the road to recovery. We must not forget the men and women who served our country. Our veterans court will ensure that we leave no veteran behind.”

It could be time for Ithaca to follow suit.

Melissa Whitworth is a freelance journalist, specializing in features and profile interviews. Email her at mwhitworth@ithacavoice.com or click on the icons in the top right for more.