PHILADELPHIA — Former National Guardsman Paul Piscitelli is in Philadelphia Municipal Court to answer to drug and theft charges. Elijah Peters, who served in the Army in Afghanistan and Iraq, was arrested twice for assault.
Like all the defendants appearing before Judge Patrick Dugan on a recent Wednesday, Piscitelli and Peters are veterans who chose to have their cases handled in a special court established for those once in the military.
More than justice is meted out.
Before the judge takes the bench, a volunteer approaches the veterans one by one offering help with such things as resume-writing and job hunting. A second volunteer steers them to long-distance runs and fitness classes. A representative from a community college discusses the advantages of higher education.
There’s also a worker from the local Veterans Affairs medical center who’s checking to make sure defendants are getting doctor appointments, disability benefits, housing vouchers or any other benefit to which they’re entitled.
“This is the touchy, feely, kissy, huggy court,” explained Janet DiTomasso, who helps administer the Philadelphia court.
The veterans court operates under the philosophy that many of the defendants who have run into trouble with the law need treatment, not incarceration. Some courts only take misdemeanor cases. Some only handle veterans who received an honorable discharge.
The Philadelphia court has set few limits.
The city has been at the forefront of an experiment that has mushroomed across the nation. In 2008, there were just five veterans courts in the United States. By the end of last year, there were 166.
Dugan, the judge, is an Army Reserve captain who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has been at the helm of the court from the start.
The veterans who appear before him face a range of charges that stem primarily from substance abuse. Sometimes that abuse started in the military. Sometimes, it was a problem before a veteran ever thought about enlisting. Dugan is determined to give them a second chance, and sometimes a third or a fourth.
“If you take any human being and you put them in situations the military puts you in, it’s going to affect you. For the rest of your life it’s going to be there. Some people can handle it. Some people see more and come back with baggage,” Dugan said. “In the military, they teach you to shoot a weapon, but they teach you to shoot a weapon at a human being.”
When Philadelphia opened its court three years ago, many initial defendants were older veterans, often homeless and longtime drug and alcohol users.
“It was actually almost easier to deal with them,” said Guy Garant, who served in the Marine Corps before becoming a prosecutor 24 years ago. “I don’t think we ever expected we would turn their lives around totally. We turned maybe a couple of lives around totally. The others we just helped stabilize.”
As the program has matured, more veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have entered the system. Their problems can be just as severe. Some seem determined to become a casualty of war.
The evaluation of the nation’s veterans courts is in the early stages. The Department of Veterans Affairs found that 7,724 veterans had entered the courts through 2012, and more than half were still being monitored and treated.
Of those who had finished veterans court, about two-thirds graduated successfully. The others were transferred to other courts, quit the program or suffered illness or death. Studies are in the works to determine longer-term recidivism rates.