Boston Municipal Court Judge Eleanor Sinnott runs a special voluntary session for vets looking to avoid jail time by complying with alternative sentences.
What makes specialty courts for drugs, housing, and now veterans so effective? Well, for the veterans treatment court, which is relatively new, they realized that there were things about veterans that made it so that a court dedicated to them would be very helpful for their overall treatment and well-being. We have veteran-specific services and resources. We have a military culture where they support each other, where they help each other. That provides an environment where they can recover, they can do well, they can get back to a life where they are law-abiding citizens and productive members of society.
How does the court differ from a regular session? It’s more rigorous than most probation programs. It has at least twice-a-week drug and alcohol screening. They have to see their probation officer once a week. They get paired once a week with a mentor who is also a veteran. Then it gets stepped up. They have to abide by their treatment plan, make all of their appointments—mental health, substance abuse treatment. You’ll notice we have the veterans standing against the side wall. One of the reasons we have that is because they have studies showing with PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder], veterans will be hyperconscious of exits and people’s hands because that’s what they had to focus on to survive in the battlefield. You want to see the hands because that’s where the weapon is and you want to know how to get in and out. They don’t like people behind them. We’re focused on trying to create an environment where they’re most comfortable.
What makes you the person to do this? I have served in the US Navy for 10 years and in the reserves as an intelligence officer. I worked with the special operations command so I have seen the physical tolls, the mental tolls on our veterans. I am familiar with the military culture.
What about the argument that you are creating not just a specialty session but a special way of handling people? I understand that argument, but these programs are really effective. They have a very high rate in terms of reduction of recidivism, and when you have reduction in recidivism you are saving huge on costs in terms of the judicial system and law enforcement. We still have Vietnam veterans that have mental health and substance abuse problems related to their service. They have been involved in our court system and the human costs of that in terms of the disruptions to their families, not being linked up to services that they are entitled to, is at a huge cost to society.
How about the effect on you? I always say that this is the only job that I’ve ever had that gets harder the longer I’m in it. Everything that I’m learning from here will definitely affect the way that I am in my other sessions, as any sort of life experience tends to, especially ones where you see people that are suffering or having a really difficult time.Why start each session with the Pledge of Allegiance? It’s a patriotic group. It’s something that shows respect for our country and their service.
At the end of a session, everyone recites “The Veterans Creed,” which your court created. What line resonates with you? “Excuses are not in my arsenal.”