Eyewitness News Investigates

Inside look at Veterans Treatment Court reveals tough compassion

WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) -- The tone of Judge Pamela Woodcock-Pfeiffer is a sharp contrast to most courtrooms, as is her knowledge of the struggles that brought the defendants to the Veterans Treatment Court.

"With any treatment court, you really spend a lot more time trying to get to know who these people are," Woodcock-Pfeiffer told Target 12 after a recent session in her Kent County District courtroom. "In other courtrooms, there's not a lot of discussion at all. It's very quick. This is an entirely different thing. We really do spend some time working on the individual's needs."

If a veteran is accepted by the court, treatment and drug screenings are required for up to a year, with the cases potentially dismissed at the end of the process. 

As one defendant told the judge, in most courtrooms you’re a number. In the veterans treatment court, you’re a name.

Rhode Island’s Veterans Treatment Court was the first of a kind in New England, hearing its first case in April 2011. There are now more than 200 veterans courts across the country. The goal is to help vets who return from war with conditions we can’t always see, that can surface as a backdrop to crimes they commit.

"They have PTSD. They have traumatic brain injuries. They have acute anxiety and depression," Woodcock-Pfeiffer said. "And conditions that are stemming from their service."

"It's not a get out of jail free card," Col. (ret.) Bill Babcock - Veterans Court Mentor Program Director

Multiple studies indicate one in three veterans comes home with symptoms of mental illness. And per capita, Rhode Island has been among the most active states in troop deployments over the past decade. Those statistics collide in a Department of Justice survey showing one in ten of the nation's inmates served in the military.

The veterans court handles mostly misdemeanors, with the goal to stop the records there, without escalation toward more serious crimes. But while the court can help defendants avoid prison time, it is not an easy option, as witnessed by retired Army National Guard Colonel Bill Babcock, who runs the court's veterans mentor program.

'It's not a get out of jail free card," Babcock said. "Once in a while we hear a veteran say, I'll just take my medicine and get it over with because if they do this program they're here nine months to a year. Where if they just took a regular sentence, they could be done in three to six months."

Among their responsibilities, the defendants are required to contact pretrial services at least once a week, attend counseling appointments, undergo drug screenings in some cases, and report back to court on their progress. Babcock's mentors and court personnel help keep the veterans in line, and they're proud of their success rate.

But they acknowledge it doesn't work for everyone. If someone misses too many of the requirements or even worse, re-offends, Judge Woodcock-Pfeiffer has to make what she admits is a difficult decision to kick them out of the program.

"For the people who just are not going to make it," she said, shaking her head. "It's hard on all of us."

When the veterans complete the program, there’s a graduation ceremony, complete with tears, cheers and hope. Also, hugs from the judge and the colonel.

"They have to go over to Afghanistan. They have to go Iraq. It's not a choice." Woodcock-Pfeiffer said. "This was a way of just saying they are coming back. They've got these issues and problems. They’re related to their service. They deserve to get a chance to get their lives back together."

Neither Babcock nor Woodcock-Pfeiffer are shy to answer critics who say the court system shouldn’t give anyone special treatment.

"Less than one percent of the population served in the military. So, I think they need an extra chance," Babcock said.

Carol Giordano, Director of Rhode Island Pretrial Services, said since the court's first case four years ago, about 200 defendants have graduated. She said there were 25 veterans in the program back then, and now the number of cases has almost tripled, fluctuating between 70 and 80.

The cost to taxpayers has been low, according to Giordano.

"We started the Veterans Treatment Court with no extra funds," Giordano said. "We worked within our regular budget and reallocated existing resources."

Giordano said since then, the general assembly has provided about $300,000 and the pretrial services unit has also been awarded a federal grant to expand the program to serve 250 additional veterans.

Babcock and Woodcock-Pfeiffer are confident cost is more than covered by keeping veterans out of the ACI.

"Keeping them out of jail saves the state money," Babcock said. "They don't re-offend usually."

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau


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