photo via @USArmy
NEW YORK—Manhattan has never been labeled "the forgotten borough" - that moniker belongs to Staten Island. But when it comes to Veteran Treatment Courts, Manhattan has found itself in the rare position of being left out.
By the time winter gives way to spring this year, a new court house in Staten Island will open and, in a first for the borough, it will include a Veteran Treatment Court. The court will offer a specially designed program to help mentor and treat military veterans in the court system. Not every veteran qualifies for the rigorous 12-24 month drug treatment course, but the results have, thus far, been positive elsewhere.
The program, started in 2008 in Buffalo, has been a hit, with 230 sites opening across the country. In New York City, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx all currently have active veteran treatment programs. With the full support from District Attorney Daniel Donovan Jr., Staten Island will start its program shortly after the new courthouse opens, slated for around the end of March, according to testimony from Executive Assistant Attorney Timothy Koller.
That will leave Manhattan as the only borough without a Veteran Treatment Court—and there is not a clear answer as to why.
At a City Council hearing last fall advocates pointed to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance as the reason. The discussion, along with persistent advocacy, prompted Wednesday's Council oversight hearing on the subject. Vance was invited, according to council staff, however he did appear before the veteran affairs committee.
Instead, Vance's office issued the following statement, sent out via its twitter account: "Our nation owes a great debt of gratitude to our veterans. As I have publicly stated before, I fully support any initiative by the Office of Court Administration (OCA) to create a full-fledged Veterans Treatment Court in Manhattan. Last fall, senior members of my office met with representatives of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to express our support for a Veterans Court. I welcome the opportunity to partner with OCA on this important initiative."
Gotham Gazette contacted OCA, which oversees and funds the courts in New York State, for comment about why, if the district attorney supports the program, there is not a Veteran Treatment Court in Manhattan.
"As of now, we have every intention of starting a Veteran Court in New York County," David Bookstaver, spokesman for OCA said by phone Wednesday. "We look forward to working with District Attorney Vance to that end."
Bookstaver did not provide a timetable as to when that would happen.
In a hearing that lasted over three hours, there wasn't a single individual, group, or elected official that spoke out against Veteran Treatment Courts.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer threw her full support behind the program. "There is nothing that should stand in the way of the establishment of a Veterans Court in Manhattan," Brewer said in her testimony. "I am truly delighted and encouraged by the statement of support by District Attorney Vance, and look forward to working with him to make the Manhattan Veterans Court a reality."
Public Advocate Letitia James was unable to attend, but sent a representative who served in the military to read her statement. James' statement said that the public advocate had written a letter to Judge Jonathan Lippman, Chief Judge of the State of New York, "to request that the State Unified Court System reassess the feasibility of erecting a Veteran Treatment Court in Manhattan."
Judge Lippman has given his blessing to open the courts in each of the other boroughs. With overwhelming support, it begs the question: what is the hold up in Manhattan?
OCA would not elaborate further on the record, but Public Advocate James provided a theory in her testimony.
"From my understanding, the only barrier to opening such a court in Manhattan is funding for staff," James said. "This is why I will be reaching out to the office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance to inquire if any settlement monies that have come to the State of New York could be used to fund staffing."
Funding would need to be provided for two or three staff members and some minimal administrative costs. In other places, the judges that preside over veterans' cases are judges already in the court system and they only hear cases in Veteran Treatment Court once a week. The Brooklyn Treatment Court runs off of a $500,000 grant, according to testimony at the council hearing.
OCA, which would have to provide funding for the new program, is funded itself by state and federal money. Federal grants to pay for starting up a Veteran Treatment Court are currently available through the United States Bureau of Justice Assistance.
James said she recommended OCA submit an application for this grant funding to pay for a program in Manhattan. Gotham Gazette asked OCA if it had done so, but the spokesperson was unable to provide that information by press time.
Last summer Gotham Gazette spoke with Valerie Raine, who was the acting statewide drug court coordinator for New York's Unified Court System. She said after seeing drastic cuts in funding and staffing in 2011 there is lingering concern about applying for grants to support new staff positions.
"When times were better, you could pretty much count on when the grant funds ran out—assuming the program did well—the court would assume the continuation of that position," Raine said last summer. "But that is no longer a guarantee. Funding is never in perpetuity."
It is still unclear why Manhattan is the lone borough yet to act, though.
For council members in support of adding a Veteran Treatment Court in Manhattan, they can't offer much budgetary help, as the City does not fund OCA. Council members could help fund the veteran mentors that are part of the Veteran Treatment Court system, positions that nearly everyone who testified at the council hearing deemed critical to the success of the program.
The mentors walk veterans through their treatment and provide peer-to-peer mentorship, much like in the military. The mentors are currently strictly voluntary and unpaid.
"It is essential Veteran Treatment Courts become available in all five boroughs," Council Member Eric Ulrich, chair of the veterans committee said on Wednesday. "A veteran in every borough deserves a second chance and the same accommodations another veteran receives in any other borough."
by Kristen Meriwether, Gotham Gazette