07/25/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Veterans Who Commit Crimes: What Do We Owe Them?

In America everyone is supposed to be equal in the eyes of the law. But we've got a growing group, a particular class of defendants entering American courtrooms who I believe need special consideration. They are soldiers returning from war.

Several studies conclude that between 30% to 40% of the approximately 1.6 million vets of Iraq and Afghanistan will "face serious mental-health injuries" like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and problems from traumatic brain injuries. Experts in the field report both those conditions are linked to anti-social and criminal behavior.

Now, to me those numbers - up to 40% of the troops afflicted - seem high. But if it's even half that it's too many brave souls returning home needing special help. So, what do we do with a soldier, who put their life on hold to go to a foreign land to fight for our liberty, when they come home and get into trouble with the law?

To be clear, I'm not referring to the highly publicized cases where a returning soldier has committed murder. Those cases have caused many to think, "Well, you train these young men to kill, they come home and kill." But there is no research, let me repeat that, there is no research, to indicate vets commit violent crimes more often than civilians. In fact, if you extrapolate government statistics for murders committed by men ages 18 to 24 it's the civilian who is more likely to kill someone, not the vet. I'm referring here to those anti-social, behavioral problems experts report that so many of our returning soldiers suffer with in silence. Problems with substance abuse, paranoia, flashbacks and bursts of unexplained temper, problems so debilitating the vet takes out their frustrations on loved ones or commits suicide.

Judge Robert Russell in Buffalo, New York noticed the trend last year. Disturbed after seeing some 300 vets come through his court, he started what's believed to be the nation's very first "Veteran's Court" for those having problems re-adjusting to civilian life. The charges against these defendants range from public drunkenness and assault, driving while intoxicated, drug related offenses, disturbing the peace, theft, domestic violence and other emotion driven violations.

The goal of this specialized court is to intercept troubled veterans before they spiral down and get lost in our already overwhelmed criminal justice system.

The soft spoken Judge Russell figured everyone would benefit if the vets were given a place to answer for their crimes that offered treatment not just punishment and a courtroom staff that included veteran advocates and assigned mentors. No veteran who appears can fall back on the self pitying thought that, "No one here knows what I've been through," because everyone in the room completely understands. Judge Russell is firm, however, demanding atonement and adherence to a one to two year individualized treatment plan. He meets regularly with each veteran face-to-face to follow the progress. Failures get the original sentence for their crime.

"Many of our vets have a warrior mentality," Judge Russell explained in a radio interview. "Some perceive that treatment may be for the weak and we're working to change that paradigm." Judge Russell instills the idea that, "the real courage and strength comes from the warrior who asks for help." He's encouraged by the progress he's seen.

Criminal justice professionals all across America realize when the soldiers start streaming home they will also have to grapple with the problem of their re-adjustment to society. So, Judge Russell's special Veteran's Court idea has been studied nationwide and has now either been adopted in or is being considered by several other states including Alaska, Pennsylvania, California and Arizona. One supporter is retired Air Force Colonel and Attorney, Billy Little, who told the Arizona Republic, "One of the things that (has) offended me is seeing a veteran who is self-medicating with alcohol or marijuana or meth and going to court and standing side by side with some gangbanger or lifetime criminal and being treated the same as them."

I can't think of a bigger travesty. To answer the soldier's service with a jail sentence for behavior that might very well stem from their service makes a mockery of their bravery. To toss the offending veteran in prison alongside the truly hardened criminal is akin to society saying they aren't worth the trouble.

We already have about 2000 special Treatment Courts in America to help those struggling with addiction. There are another 200 Mental Health Courts and both have been successful in strategic support and treatment for Americans in need. Don't our returning soldier's deserve a special place too?

It really all comes down to this: By the very virtue of these veterans sacrifice for our freedom does the country owe them something extra upon their return? Of course we do.


Read a collection of Diane Dimond's columns at She may be contacted through her site.