Former National Guardsman Paul Piscitelli arrived at the Philadelphia Municipal Court to answer to drug and theft charges on a recent Wednesday. But instead of getting a typical court session, he appeared before Judge Patrick Dugan in a special court for those once in the military.
Operating under the philosophy that many of the defendants need treatment, not incarceration, veterans courts offer help arranging housing for the homeless, drug counseling for the addicted, and therapy for those with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Dugan, an Army Reserve captain who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, said the veterans who appear before him face a range of charges that stem primarily from substance abuse. He’s found that some veterans rely on pain killers and opiates to deal with the physical and mental wounds of war. That can lead to heroin, which is generally cheaper.
Dugan is determined to give the veterans 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.”
Philadelphia has been at the forefront of an experiment that has spread across the nation. In 2008, just five veterans courts existed in the United States. By the end of last year, the number had mushroomed to 166. Part of the draw: With many local governments cutting social services, these courts give communities the chance to tap the federal government’s resources.
The evaluation of the nation’s veterans courts is in the early stages. The Department of Veterans Affairs found that 7,724 veterans entered the courts through 2012, and more than half are still being monitored and treated. Of those who had finished veterans court, about two-thirds graduated successfully.
Piscitelli, who was reeling from heroin abuse, must now complete the terms of his probation, which include therapy, regular urine tests, and staying out of trouble. His drug of choice upon returning from Iraq was OxyContin, a highly addictive painkiller. When money started to get tight, acquaintances turned him on to heroin.
By the summer of 2011, Piscitelli had been arrested four times, twice for possession and twice for retail theft. He sat in the county jail for nearly two months before court officials learned of his status as a veteran and offered him the chance to consolidate all of his charges in veterans court.
Piscatelli hasn’t failed a drug test since he entered veterans court more than a year ago.
“I’m grateful for it,” Piscatelli said. “Being held accountable … gave me a chance to start getting my life back.”