by Annette Hinkle
Andrea Harum Schiavoni, the Southampton town justice who presides over the newly established East End Veteran’s Court which will convene monthly and began hearing cases at the town’s justice court in Hampton Bays on Wednesday, November 20.
How did the idea of veteran’s court come about in New York State?
It started with Judge Robert Russell in Buffalo. As folks come back from serving overseas assimilation is tough and they find themselves in front of the judge for various reasons and the regular court system doesn’t address those various reasons.
Veteran’s court allows a reason to consider. These veterans were in a place where they are told not to be sociable in this situation, or shoot to kill in that situation and they come back to normal society where they are supposed to engage and trust. What they’re taught to do and taught to do well in war is in many ways the exact opposite of what we tell our kids and people in our community to do well.
It’s difficult and can lead to PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder], substance abuse, an inability to relate to others including their family and those things can lead to homelessness and joblessness.
What I learned from Judge [Randall] Hinrichs, the Suffolk County Administrative Judge in Central Islip and Riverhead, Suffolk County has by far the greatest percentage of veterans in the state of New York. They started a veterans court in Central Islip with Judge [John] Toomey.
Why is there a need for this second court and who was involved in its formation?
The five East End towns have a high percentage of veterans who would not available themselves of a court [in Islip]. These are crimes alleged to have been committed in the East End towns. Suffolk County Assistant DAs Brad Magill and Jacob de Lauter, who work in the East End bureau, and Judge Hinrichs were instrumental in creating this, as was Southampton Town Police Sergeant Sue Ralph and the DA’s office. They’re the ones in touch with the veterans first and must have seen the need existed.
How will the court work?
If you’ve committed this crime and are acknowledging there are reasons due to your status as a veteran, you plead guilty to that charge and you agree to abide by the rules of the court which include psychological counseling or medical help — whatever it is you need to help focus you back toward productivity.
If you abide by this agreement and take advantage of what the veterans administration is providing for you — and we now also have a housing authority — you can withdraw the original plea and plead guilty to a lesser charge. But if don’t abide by it, the original plea stands and you are sentenced.
It’s almost like interim probation. In a regular court you might plead guilty to a higher crime, then the DA and your attorney agree to interim probation which, if you satisfy, you then plead guilty to a lower charge.
Depending on the particular issue, they are screened through the Veterans Administration by psychiatrists, psychologists or addiction specialists. If their needs are drug or alcohol related, they are tested each time they come to court. If housing is your problem, we can put you in touch with folks who can help you.
What kinds of offenses do you expect to see with the veteran population?
It’s just like the general population — drug related charges, assault, issues with respect to PTSD, domestic abuse. I’m going to handle misdemeanors only. The screening process will be by the assistant DA and based on how much time the veteran was in combat and the nature of the offense.
Tell me about the connections the court will help these veterans make with other veterans?
A big part of this court is mentorship. At every court session there are veterans from all different wars there. Each defendant is assigned a veteran to help them through this. Each veteran mentor is respected in the community and has done great things and they establish an intimate relationship. They have shared experience. Even your spouses don’t understand because they weren’t there with you. Another veteran just knows what they’re feeling.
In the past if veterans of WWI and WWII — and even Korea and Vietnam — did three tours of duty that was a lot. We have some veterans now who have gone and returned a dozen times and come back here between the deployments.
The vast majority of veterans who return are strong, dedicated, productive members of society. They come back with this experience and have found a way to make that transition. The percentage of veterans in front of us is a small percentage. What this court could quite possibly do is show the smaller percentage what the larger percentage has done. It’s a lot easier to do when you don’t feel you’re inventing it yourself.
How successful have other veterans courts been?
They are very successful. You are dealing with a population that’s used to a system and a regiment — this provides a regiment, a transition they are unable to make on their own.
Really, word of mouth will make this grow. No doubt there are folks who would qualify if they knew it existed. That’s paramount, that this possibility exists.