Thanks to a handful of local advocates, troubled veterans residing on the East End will now be eligible to enter a court system that’s tailored to address their unique challenges.
Starting on Wednesday, November 20, local veterans will have the opportunity to have criminal cases heard by a sympathetic ear in the East End Veterans Court, where the ultimate goal is rehabilitation, not punishment. At that time, veterans arrested on non-violent charges will have the opportunity to have their cases heard before the special court, which will be held at the town complex in Hampton Bays, as long as the presiding judge, prosecutor, defense attorney and VA treatment team agree that the case qualifies.
Typically, those referred to the East End Veterans Court must plead guilty to the crime they are charged with and then sign a contract outlining their responsibilities to the program and the consequences for failing to follow them. Usually, those consequences are what the defendant would have been sentenced to if found guilty in a regular court.
Southampton Town Justice Andrea Harum-Schiavoni, who will preside over the East End Veterans Court, said her hope is to “give a second chance at a good life to those who have done good for others.” The court will fall under the umbrella of the Suffolk County Unified Court System.
With the largest percentage of state veterans now living in Suffolk County, it is just a matter of time before the region sees a large number of veterans matriculating through the criminal justice system, according to Justice Harum-Schiavoni. Add in the challenges unique to any veteran—re-acclimating to civilian life, dealing with physical and emotional traumas, and finding a job—and the likelihood of finding oneself on the wrong side of the law gets even greater.
About five years ago, upon realizing the growing need to mitigate these special cases, Justice Robert Russell, a Buffalo area judge who was presiding over a drug and alcohol treatment court, began putting all offenders with a military background on a single slate. He’d bring in representatives from the Veterans Administration, and would sentence the offenders to treatment for their issues rather than jail time.
Justice Russell’s informal veterans court morphed into a lawful entity not long after, and today there are about 130 similar courts across the country, with the closest being the Suffolk County Veterans Court in Central Islip that was created in February.
A number of local figures have been involved in bringing the specialized court to the South Fork, in particular Southampton Town Police Sergeant Susan Ralph and Town Justice Edward D. Burke Sr. Sgt. Ralph traveled to Normandy in 2004 to mark the 60th anniversary of D-Day, and that visit kick-started her veterans outreach efforts.
She also explained that her father’s pride in serving in the military has inspired her to help local veterans.
“My father, he was a proud United States Marine and, selfishly, this kind of brings me a little closer to him,” said Sgt. Ralph, referring to her late father. “He always taught me to take care of people, and that is what law enforcement and police work is all about. I really believe that.
“If another avenue is better than jail time to help a veteran readjust to normal life and get out of trouble, then they deserve the chance,” she continued.
Though she has not yet seen many cases involving troubled veterans on the East End, she noted: “I can think of a couple of candidates who would benefit from this.”
A Marine Corps veteran himself, having served from 1961 to 1967, Justice Burke said he understands and feels for those veterans who return home after serving their country, only to face hardship.
“I’m really glad it is finally getting started,” he said. “Being a former Marine—you’re never an ex-Marine—I like to see steps being taken to protect those who protect. This court is a post-plea alternative to incarceration where veterans with non-violent offenses will be brought to justice by being educated, supported and undergoing psychological and psychiatric treatment, if necessary.”
And it isn’t as if the veterans entering the specialized court are getting off easy, Justice Harum-Schiavoni is quick to note.
“They have to jump through all sorts of hoops and do things to prove their commitment that normal offenders wouldn’t have to,” she said. “Yes, they are accused of a crime. But they have to choose to participate in this program. They are pleading guilty to the charge and then abiding by the recommendations of the team.
“The Veterans Administration is there to help them, with medical avenues, housing avenues, psychological and addiction needs can be met,” Justice Harum-Schiavoni continued. “But just by entering into the court, they are pleading guilty and accepting responsibility the same as they did when they signed up to serve. Hopefully, the outcome of the treatment is more tailored to what they need to be whole again.”