Judge Wachtler, former chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals, spoke recently during a panel discussion, sponsored by the Veterans Mental Health Coalition of New York City, at which speakers described efforts to steer nonviolent veteran offenders away from imprisonment and instead offer them support services and mental health treatment. One such program drew a good deal of attention: the Veterans Program, a groundbreaking North Shore-LIJ Health System initiative developed by Judge Wachtler, a lifetime North Shore-LIJ trustee.
The Veterans Program is a collaboration between North Shore-LIJ’s Law and Psychiatry Institute, the New York State courts, the Brooklyn, Queens and Nassau district attorneys’ offices and the US Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) New York Harbor Health Care, Bronx and Northport VA Medical Centers. It is the first in the state – and the largest in the nation – to create a standardized approach to providing services and treatment to veterans involved with the criminal justice system, with the goal of preventing veterans who land in court or jail for minor offenses from getting into deeper trouble with the law. At a time when many veterans are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression – 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans nationwide (300,000 men and women) have been diagnosed with those illnesses – there is an urgent need to steer them toward treatment rather than jail time.
During the panel discussion, held at Hunter College’s School of Social Work, several people involved in the Veterans Program – including Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes, First Assistant DA Anne Swern and veterans outreach specialists from the VA’s medical centers – spoke in detail about their work. Several noted that a frequent challenge they face is convincing veterans to seek treatment; too many fail to do so, either out of embarrassment (they may worry about looking “weak” in front of their comrades) or fear that they will lose their benefits.
One way to counter this is through outreach from other veterans – the Veterans Program offers peer counseling to guide troubled former soldiers into treatment programs. Another strategy is to reach out to veterans who have been arrested for misdemeanors such as subway fare-jumping. “We want to use the arrest,” said Ms. Swern, “as the opportunity to get them the services they need.”
Judge Wachtler and District Attorney Hynes, both veterans, spoke movingly of their desire to avoid repeating the tragedy of the Vietnam era. “What this country did to [Vietnam veterans],” said the district attorney, “was an absolute disgrace – especially the criminal justice system.”
The Veterans Program is one of a number of innovative programs run by North Shore-LIJ’s Office of Military and Veteran’s Liaison Services. Its director, Army Lt. Col. (Ret.) Randy Howard, moderated the Hunter event. Other North Shore-LIJ initiatives include a treatment program for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffering from PTSD and/or traumatic brain injury and programs to help returning service members find employment in the health system.
District Attorney Hynes and the other speakers touted the Veterans Program as a model that can – and should – be replicated across the country. “If you’re in a county rather than Brooklyn, Queens or Nassau, you have a moral imperative to demand from your district attorney why such services aren’t in place,” said Mr. Hynes. “I believe that the day will come when we have district attorneys across the country committed to the proposition that no man or woman who served their country will ever be criminalized again.”
To learn more about North Shore-LIJ’s Veterans’ Initiatives, call Mr. Randy Howard at 516-562-3238.
About North Shore-LIJ Health System
The nation’s second-largest, non-profit, secular healthcare system, the North Shore-LIJ Health System cares for people of all ages throughout Long Island, Queens, Manhattan and Staten Island – a service area encompassing more than seven million people. The winner of the National Quality Forum’s 2010 National Quality Healthcare Award, the North Shore-LIJ Health System consists of 15 hospitals, 17 long-term care facilities, The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, three trauma centers, five home health agencies, a hospice network and dozens of outpatient centers. In addition, North Shore-LIJ is partnering with Hofstra University to develop a new medical school, which will admit its first class in 2011. North Shore-LIJ’s owned facilities house about 5,600 beds, employ more than 10,000 nurses and have affiliations with more than 9,000 physicians. Its workforce of about 42,000 is the largest on Long Island and the ninth largest in New York City. For more information, go to www.northshorelij.com.