Lawyers Journal

Just the judge for the job

Sullivan presides over state's first Vet Treatment Court

It was a particularly poignant session of Norfolk County Veteran's Treatment Court on Tuesday, November 13 for the defendants appearing in front of the Hon. Mary Hogan Sullivan at Dedham District Court. Just two days following the observance of Veterans Day, these men were there as part of their weekly mandated appearances, but also received recognition for their service, thanks to Sullivan.

Following each of their court-mandated appearances on this particular Tuesday session, Sullivan asked the defendants to come up and shake her hand so she could personally thank them for their service. The session team -- consisting of defense attorneys, treatment professionals, social workers, probation officials and Veterans Affairs staff, among others - followed suit with handshakes and applause. At least one defendant was moved to tears by this meaningful gesture.

Sullivan presides over the first court of its kind in Massachusetts -- a program that provides a supportive, yet stringent program for veteran defendants. The post-disposition court is based on the drug court model aimed at specialized treatment services in an attempt to prevent the defendants from a repeat encounter with the Massachusetts Criminal Justice System.

Massachusetts is one of a growing number of states to enlist this Veteran's Treatment Court model. The first specialized Veteran's Treatment Court began operation in January 2008 in Buffalo, New York. In less than five years, 120 Veteran's Treatment Courts are operating in 35 states, according to justiceforvets.org. And, more than 100 additional programs are in the planning process.

"It takes a judge like the Honorable Mary Sullivan to get this off the ground," said Massachusetts Bar Association Vice President Robert W. Harnais, who practices criminal defense in Quincy.

Defendants appearing in Veteran's Treatment Court range in age and crimes, but, as a result of their military service, all have mental illness (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury, and others) and/or substance abuse issues that require treatment. All of the current defendants are men. Prior to the creation of the Veteran's Treatment Court in March, these men would have been left to conventional processes of the Massachusetts Criminal Justice System. Thanks to Sullivan's efforts, this value-added program affords them the opportunity to receive mental health, drug abuse and other critical treatment services while they serve probation.

The judge begins the court session by asking the defendant how he has progressed since his last weekly, mandated appearance. She carefully listens to his response, and then easily and casually inserts follow-up questions and references from information gained from the preceding meeting with the session team. The intended result of each dialogue with the defendant is making sure that he stays on track with court-mandated treatment requirements while on probation.

"The legal community is very fortunate to have a judge like Mary Sullivan who goes well beyond what is expected of a public servant. Her compassion and expertise is inspiring," said Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel and chief operating officer of the Massachusetts Bar Association.

A jurist with more than a decade of district court experience, including work in drug court sessions, Sullivan swiftly blends her approaches as both a stern judge and a compassionate counselor. The veterans seem to respond well.

She is quick to strike a connection with the various defendants, whether it is an individual whom she has seen weekly over the last several months or someone new to the Veteran's Treatment Court docket.

"How snazzy you look today," she remarked to one gentleman. "Happy birthday this week," she commented to another.

During one defendants' appearance, she lightheartedly discussed the addition of a new kitten to his home and then followed up offering her condolences for his mother's passing a few weeks ago -- an update she learned from the preceding session team meeting. She also offered encouragement by applauding his impressive 165 days of sobriety. With a counselor's tone, she told him that she recognized that life events, like the passing of a loved one, can often lead to revisiting an addiction. Striking a more judicial tone, she stressed the importance of him maintaining his sobriety. It was a sincere and emotional exchange, as were most in the Nov. 13 Veteran's 
Treatment Court session.

"I know them," said Sullivan, explaining her rapport with the veterans as a win-win.

According to Sullivan, data from drug courts indicate that "interaction with the judge on a personal level makes a big difference in recidivism," according the Sullivan. Drug court data also indicate that the presence of treatment "makes all the difference in the world," she said.

As easy as it appears to be for Sullivan to connect with each defendant in the session, she sets the right expectations for prospects. At the Nov. 13 session, a handcuffed defendant observed. Sullivan addressed him directly, saying, "a lot of people find taking the time is easier than dealing with me each week." Following a brief dialogue with that individual, Sullivan and the team agreed to screen the veteran that day to determine eligibility for Veterans Affairs benefits -- a clear example of the court's instant access to key resources.

"I don't want to sound cliché, but it saved me," said defendant Adam Matthews, during an interview with WCVB-TV (Channel 5) that aired in November. "It really did. I was going down a path I wouldn't have come back from," he added.

Bringing this innovative session to Massachusetts followed Sullivan's attendance at a national conference for drug court professionals. There, she learned of and attended a seminar on Veteran's Treatment Courts taking place in other states. She recalls thinking to herself, "We need to do this."

Once she returned home, Sullivan was highly motivated. She assembled a team of legal professionals, tracked the number of court-involved veterans this would positively impact and applied for a grant. As a result of receiving a scholarship to move forward, she and her designated team traveled to Tulsa, Oklahoma for intensive training.

The result was the March 2012 launch of Norfolk County Veteran's Treatment Court with only one veteran defendant. Now, 15 defendants are enrolled in any of the four phases of the program. Phase I ensures that the veterans' basic needs are being met and they are receiving the proper treatment; Phase II includes mandated weekly court appearances and proof of treatment; Phase III involves appearances every other week; and Phase IV requires appearances every three weeks.

"The aim is to have the veteran complete the program in 18 months," said Sullivan, who explains that sometimes defendants do have "slips" that require them to increase reporting or appearance requirements as necessary.

"We are absolutely devoted to doing this. It is important," said Sullivan in her take-charge manner, one possibly honed growing up the eldest of 10 siblings, serving for 11 years on the District Court bench and raising four now grown children - including a daughter enrolled in law school and a son in combat as a U.S. Marine.

Sullivan, who always knew that she wanted a career in law, specifically criminal law, said "I have the best job in the world."

Following the Nov. 13 Veteran's Treatment Court session, Sullivan and her team invited the veterans to enjoy a cake prepared by the probation officer's family. The Veterans Day celebration exemplified the team's concern for veterans who put their own lives on the line to defend the nation's freedom and preserve the very judicial system they now find themselves in.

 

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