Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Yes, why stop with veterans?

Good Slate article here on veterans' courts raises the right PTSD question. It's in a quote from Colorado ACLU legal director Mark Silverstein: "Should the criminal justice system take into account PTSD when it arises from military service but disregard it when it stems from different but nevertheless horrific life experiences?"

Joel's mom found the article after veterans' courts became an issue in a local judicial campaign in WA. It sounds like the rhetoric behind veterans' courts, worthy in itself, says that people still recovering from the environment of war should get rehabilitation rather than punishment for offenses they commit while trying to return to civilian life.

Well, yes. Except, people recovering from domestic violence, homelessness, bad neighborhoods, ugly work environments -- well, those can be war zones too. In more than a joking sense. They can be places where people live in a state of fight-or-flight alertness for days and months at a time. As Silverstein says, there is a lot of genuine post-traumatic stress out there. Not all the same of course -- obviously some traumas are worse than others -- but there's a lot.

So from there you could argue either that many people suffer, so no one should get leniency, or you could argue that many people suffer, so leniency should be the duty of any judge facing any accused party. Why not take the path of mercy?

The hopeful part is, there's a long tradition in U.S. and European history that, when a new social program starts, it's as an expression of thanks to veterans or their families from a grateful state. Sociologist Theda Skocpol particularly has traced how veterans' pensions following the U.S. Civil War helped invent our own welfare state. The models created for veterans in the late 1800s led to the founding in the 20th century of Social Security and the rest of our (now mostly former) "safety net".

So maybe tradition will hold with these courts, as perhaps with the recently created protections for veterans with mortgage troubles. Maybe if a kind of understanding starts with veterans it will expand to include everyone.

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