Judge Robert Russell, creator of the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court, shakes hands with veteran Justin Smith who has succeeded in his court, on Oct. 23, 2012.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Christian Science Monitor/Getty

Ari Melber answers your questions about veteran drug courts

Updated
By msnbc staff

The Cycle co-host Ari Melber answered your questions about drug courts for veterans Tuesday. Judge Robert Russell explained how courts seek to rehabilitate—rather than incarcerate—veterans who have committed crimes on The Cycle last week. Here are Ari’s responses.

Alicia Maule: This is an interesting topic Ari (it reminds me of a college paper I did on pregnant inmates). Do you think this effort to rehab rather than imprison veterans, will lead to wider reform of how we treat/punish men and women who are not veterans?

Ari Melber: Great question—and probably yes.

Judge Russell’s veterans’ court was based on the “drug court” model, which pushes rehab over jail for defendants who commit to treatment. As a policy, that model can be available to all. Some states use it more than others.

The veterans’ court model is also tailored to address mental and substance-related challenges that are specific to veterans, and thus typically involves working with government veterans programs.

Abby Borovitz: This question came from our Facebook friend Kevin Burgess “All veterans ask for is an orderly life, with both discipline and positive results for all of our efforts.”

Ari Melber: I definitely hear you there, while interviewing some veterans for this piece, one thing that came through was many saying they don’t expect any kind of special treatment—they served, they surely know the value of hard work, and if they struggled with substance abuse what they needed most was a program for rehabilitation and a fresh start. As I’ve written, I think that’s the approach we should generally aim for first, before prioritizing prison for users.

Krystal_Ball_Is_The_Best: The Republican Party is the more jingoistic party and seems to constantly accuse the other side of not being supportive enough of our troops. How can they do this while cutting VA benefits, food stamps (which many veterans are no), letting them stay homeless, and incarcerating them rather than providing them the mental help that they need? Is it just cynical politics on their part or do they really suffer from such severe cognitive dissonance?

Ari Melber: You’re hitting on a major issue here, how despite many politicians’ rhetoric about our veterans, sometimes our government fails to provide them the benefits and protection they’ve so clearly earned.

I think the example of veterans’ courts shows a more positive development on this front—while 60% of incarcerated veterans have substance abuse problems (as the Presumed Guilty article reports), these courts were started at the local level by judges and veterans’ advocates (i.e. government employees) precisely to better address the needs of part of the veterans community. The Obama administration’s Justice Dept. would argue it is also facilitating the right services for veterans here, as they advocate more of these programs at the federal level, as would some Congressional Republicans who support similar efforts.

PS—Your KBITB screen name is awesome.

Fred Orth: Wonder which came forward first, the legal system, the military healthcare system, or the private medical profession? I suspect that it was medical mental treatments, catching up with reality, that shouted loudest, first. If so, good for them.

Ari Melber:  Hi Fred, well, there’s probably no simple answer there, but I can say that many criminologists and medical professionals have raised the concern that the criminal justice system generally begins with the tool of punishment—rather than beginning with a more diagnostic question of what kind of problem a defendant has, and what is the response that is just and beneficial to society.

Since most incarcerated individuals are in jail for non-violent drug offenses, those kind of medical/health questions become even more important. Some argue that if a crime is sufficiently damaging or cruel—violence, for example—that victims and prosecutors should not “have to care” what motivated the criminal. Many can relate to that sentiment, at least for violent crimes. It is much harder, I think, to use that premise when assessing crimes that are primarily damaging to the criminal—private drug abuse, for example—without impacting other people’s safety or rights.

@abronxchick: We owe it to these brave people to treat them with the deference and compassion they’ve earned from our nation for their sacrifices. My grandfather fought in Korea, lost a lung, came back to South Carolina and had to sit on the back of the bus. My father went to Vietnam to escape South Carolina, came back to N.Y. and though not as blatant, didn’t fair [sic] much better. Kudos to POTUS and Holder, Congress should be impeached for trying to impeach him.

Ari Melber: Thanks for your note—and thank you to your father for his service.

As for Attorney General Holder, it is striking that he has faced such unusually intense opposition in Congress, including the first vote to hold a sitting AG in contempt.

He is also, as I mentioned in my interview with him, the ninth longest serving AG in U.S. history at this point. (He said he didn’t realize that.)

So, while the opposition has been strong, it apparently has not shortened his tenure compared to most precedents. In fact, one wonders—there’s no way to know—whether the House’s pursuit of him might have left him wanting to stay on the job even longer.

Veteran's Issues and Veterans

Ari Melber answers your questions about veteran drug courts

Updated