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  • Thursday, May 22, 2014

    Groups Urge ‘Justice for Vets Act’

    ALBANY – Veterans groups representing over 200,000 veterans urged passage of the Justice for Our Veterans Act on May 20, calling for a criminal justice framework that ensures untreated veterans with mental health illnesses receive treatment and a fair process. Members of the American Legion and the Veterans Defense Program of the New York State Defenders Association (NYSDA) joined Senator Joseph Griffo and Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi, sponsors of the Justice for Our Veterans Act, A.7529 and S.5624.

    Senator Griffo, R-Rome, said, “This bill creates humanitarian procedures so that veterans in the criminal justice system receive treatment and consideration if they are suffering from a mental health illness as a result of military service, and it may have played a role in their criminal offense.”

    Assemblyman Brindisi, D-Utica, said, “There is a national mental health calamity for many veterans of the last decade. In New York, a RAND Corporation study found nearly one in four returning veterans since 2001 had an unusually high rate of mental health problems, including Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and major depression. Sadly, only 50% of them are receiving adequate treatment according to another RAND study.”

    Mark Williams, Cattaraugus County public defender and commander of the American Legion in Cattaraugus County, said: “We need a framework to allow both judges and prosecutors to be informed about the effects of military service on the mental health of some veterans whose conditions are being overlooked or misunderstood in the current criminal justice system. A majority of counties, including mine, do not have veterans courts to deal with the special circumstances vets face when charged with a crime. And, the 19 veteran courts or tracks in the 17 counties that have them usually limit eligibility to only misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. We need to look at every one of our vets that come into contact with the criminal justice system in all of New York State to see if there are circumstances that merit their inclusion in a veterans’ program.”

    Jonathan E. Gradess, executive director of the New York State Defenders Association, said, “A New York Times ‘Special Report from the War Zone’ investigated 121 soldiers who came back from Iraq or Afghanistan, had no previous criminal record, and committed homicides. Many of them were suffering from mental health conditions related to their military service. Sadly, some subset of peoples’ mental health is seriously impacted by their military combat experience. However, this bill is not a ‘get out of jail’ card for anyone. It is an opportunity for vets to receive treatment if they are negatively affected by a serious service-related mental health ailment that has some role in the charged offense. The bill first requires the Court to determine if confinement of any defendant accused of a felony is necessary for the protection of the public.”