American Guilt

Judicial Remedies Highlight Discrepancies in Accountability

By Alexander Coates

Starched collars and sodden hems alike conceal narratives of trauma, yet some are deemed deserving of salute while others are deigned unfit for even fleeting salutation. Cultural cliches of worth and merit inform institutional practices in California and create a divergence in how aid is rendered to those in need.

The veterans’ court program, modeled on successful drug court implementations, is a relatively recent addition to a slew of services, entitlements and supports available to veterans of the United States Armed Forces. The program is entering its tenth year. Founded in 2008, in Buffalo, New York, the program is composed of a loose coalition of state and local courts, with 26 in California alone. Veterans’ courts emphasize deferment and treatment, to keep veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder or suffering from trauma, sexual abuse or drug addiction from entering the prison system.

H.R. 4345, The Veterans’ Treatment Court Coordination Act, proposed by Representatives Charles Crist, a Florida Democrat, and Jeff Denham, a California Republican, would have the program expand nationwide through a series of grants to local judicial districts administered by the Department of Justice. Care for the country’s former servicemen and women is one of the few issues today that still receives bipartisan support. What other cause could unite a Florida Democrat and a California Republican? Such support should be a solid indicator of the political insulation such social services maintain.

Berkeley City College connects veterans to these programs through its Veterans’ Resource Center located on the third floor’s west side. While the veterans court program addresses a specific set of individuals and eligibility can vary between jurisdictions, its core concept — of taking into account the myriad factors precipitating an individual’s arrival before a judge — is an encouraging step towards a criminal legal system that prioritizes rehabilitative strategies over punitive ones and offers a more wide-ranging recognition of the effects of trauma and substance abuse within the criminal legal system.

Though veterans’ programs are no stranger to accusations of bureaucratic waste and mismanagement, rarely are veterans themselves subject to the narratives of fraud or entitlement abuse all too familiar to welfare recipients and beneficiaries of government aid programs.

“It’s okay if we say it,” assures Timothy Hilton, a Marine Corps veteran and Berkeley City College Veterans’ Club member, after chiding those among his fellow veterans who aim to game the system of benefits by exaggerating or inventing ailments to increase their disability rating. Hilton feels such exaggeration is commonplace, and while the topic is freely discussed amongst veterans, it is a taboo conversation piece in other settings.

The defense of resources earmarked for veterans is readily leapt to not only by politicians seeking votes and the recipients themselves, but by the very words used to describe such services. Veterans services are just that, “services” or “resources” or “benefits,” while more generally applicable social services are labeled “entitlements” and “welfare.” The difference in popular rhetoric, while illuminating a certain transactional nature of service in the United States Armed Forces, speaks to a sense of obligation felt towards servicemen and women, and the continued support for expansion of these services to a guilt in not having fulfilled that obligation.

But American guilt is selective. It is a guilt which can concede the trauma of donning a uniform, but condemns the injury of sleeping on the street, a guilt that more readily warrants kindness to those who have stepped into harm’s way than for those who have fallen into it.

This is not to say that veterans are not deserving of the support they receive, and more — for they are. Rather, with homelessness on the front-pages of nearly every news outlet in California — and on the doorstep of many Californians — with an overburdened and controversy-fraught prison system, those spaces where there is popular support for programs aimed at rehabilitation and empowerment deserve to be examined.

The connection is not a hard one to draw. “We must end the vicious cycle of homelessness, debt and jail,” writes Gayle Greco in a letter to the Los Angeles Times, “we have established veterans treatment courts … why not try a Los Angeles County homelessness court?”

But mimicking the method is not as easy as it sounds. The increased judicial discretion, which wins bipartisan support when applied to veterans, has stirred controversy and civil liberty concerns when applied to San Francisco’s homeless population. Representative Scott Weiner’s proposed legislation to expand conservatorship eligibility, SB-1045, received support from local business owners and city council members, but drew ire from the Coalition on Homelessness’ Executive Director Jennifer Friedenbach as being a superficial change in San Francisco’s treatment of homeless persons and for doing little to address the root causes of homelessness.

Trauma should not win consideration and kindness when it comes as the result of service, but institutionalization when it comes as a symptom of the street. Perhaps as a nation we need to try to feel as responsible for the condition of our homeless as we do for the condition of our veterans. Their hardships are equally the product of the society within which we all reside.

At the top: Elevated walkways connect Oakland’s three-block long police station, courthouse and county jail complex. The Alameda County Veterans Treatment Court is housed inside the Wiley W. Manuel Courthouse at 616 Washington Ave. Oakland, Calif. Photo Credit: Alexander Coates

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