There was an incredible story of compassion out of Fayetteville, North Carolina, a few weeks back.
Fayetteville, it is worth noting, is home to Fort Bragg, one of the largest and most well known United States military bases in the world.
Sgt. Joseph Serna, a former Green Beret, has been dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder following his four combat tours in Afghanistan and his nearly 20 years in the US army. (http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2016/04/22/a-judge-sentences-a-us-veteran-to-24-hours-in-jail-then-joins-him-behind-bars.html)
He is just one of many thousands of military veterans around the world struggling to return to civilian life after experiencing the horrors of war first-hand.
Like so many others suffering from mental illness, he opted to self medicate in order to dull the pain. His drug of choice was alcohol.
Sgt. Serna ended up facing an impaired driving charge, which ultimately brought him to the Veteran’s Treatment Court, a specialized district court in Cumberland County, North Carolina, which is presided over by Judge Lou Olivera, who is also a US army veteran. (http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2016/04/22/a-judge-sentences-a-us-veteran-to-24-hours-in-jail-then-joins-him-behind-bars.html)
“…every accused individual who ends up in court, regardless of the alleged offence, deserves to be treated like a human being—with compassion.”
During Sgt. Serna’s struggle to stay sober, he appeared in front of Judge Olivera 25 times, providing the court with regular status updates. However, during one of these recent appearances, Sgt. Serna lied to the court about a urine test. When he later confessed to this, Judge Olivera was left with little choice but to send Sgt. Serna to lockup overnight. (http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2016/04/22/a-judge-sentences-a-us-veteran-to-24-hours-in-jail-then-joins-him-behind-bars.html)
But Judge Olivera—concerned that a night alone in lockup could worsen Sgt. Serna’s condition—decided that he would drive Sgt. Serna to jail and spend the night as his (voluntary) cell mate. The two discussed their respective military careers, and Sgt. Serna described the entire experience as “more of a father-son conversation.” (http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2016/04/22/a-judge-sentences-a-us-veteran-to-24-hours-in-jail-then-joins-him-behind-bars.html. Also, here is video news coverage of the story: http://abc11.com/1303652/ and http://www.wral.com/news/local/video/15655867/.)
This is an incredible example of judicial leadership and compassion. It serves as a strong and necessary reminder that every accused individual who ends up in court, regardless of the alleged offence, deserves to be treated like a human being—with compassion.
It is also vital to appreciate just how effective specialized courts can be—if they are properly established and utilized.
If rehabilitation and reintegration are indeed aims of our criminal justice system, then we must—within reason—tailor programs and sentences to individual offenders.
“Unfortunately, specialized courts are often one of the first things on the chopping block when cash-strapped governments look to cut costs.”
Treatment-focused courts like this one tend to lead to lower levels of recidivism than traditional courts, as individuals are given the treatment and supports needed to address the root causes of their behaviour and consequent contact with the legal system. They also instil a sense of pride, responsibility, and accountability in those who appear in court.
Unfortunately, specialized courts are often one of the first things on the chopping block when cash-strapped governments look to cut costs. This is a very short-sighted approach. We should embrace short-term pain for long-term gain; all of society benefits (financially and in many other ways) if an individual is able to turn his life around. Unfortunately, governments with 4-year mandates tend to focus almost exclusively on cutting short-term costs, without regard for long-term repercussions.
Specialized courts should be seen as a very smart investment—one that will pay dividends in the long run.