New Legislation (S.1957-A/A.5719-A) Provides Historic Expansion of Life-Changing Veterans Courts
On Monday Night, Landmarks Around the State Lit in Red, Green, and Yellow — Colors of the Vietnam Service Ribbon — to Honor Vietnam War Veterans; Photos Available Here
Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today announced he has signed legislation (S.1957-A/A.5719-A) expanding access to Veterans Treatment Courts across New York State, allowing qualifying justice-involved veterans in counties that lack a Veterans Treatment Court to have their cases transferred into an existing Veterans Treatment Court in a neighboring county. The Governor highlighted the need for this expansion in his 2021 State of the State agenda.
The Governor also announced that on Monday, New York State took additional actions to honor Vietnam War Veterans Day, including a virtual forum hosted by the New York State Division of Veterans' Services honoring the service and sacrifice of Native American Vietnam War veterans and the illumination of landmarks in the colors of the Vietnam Service Ribbon.
"Veterans have made enormous sacrifices for this country abroad and unfortunately often face significant challenges upon returning home. New York State is redoubling our support for the brave men and women who have served America in uniform," Governor Cuomo said. "This legislation will make it easier to help veterans in the criminal justice system connect with much needed support services regardless of county. We've also taken action to commemorate the sacrifices veterans made in Vietnam and honor the important contributions of Native American servicemembers."
Senator Brad Hoylman said, "Veterans Treatment Courts are a homegrown New York success story that have deservedly become a national model. This legislation will dramatically expand access to Veterans Treatment Courts across New York State, connecting justice-involved veterans struggling with mental illness or addiction with the programs and services they need to repair their lives. I extend my thanks to Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins for prioritizing the needs of New York's veterans, to Assembly Sponsor Sandy Galef for her partnership, and to Governor Cuomo for swiftly signing this bill into law."
Assemblywoman Sandy Galef said, "It is an honor to see this landmark legislation become the law of our state. What began as a noble experiment in Buffalo with an empathetic judge and a small group of Vietnam War Veterans will now be available to every eligible justice-involved Veteran in New York State. It was my privilege to sponsor this bill to connect these courageous New Yorkers to the life-changing services and resources that they so rightfully deserve."
Expanding Access to Veterans Treatment Courts
On March 29, Governor Cuomo signed S.1957-A/A.5719-A into law. The legislation closes existing justice gaps for veterans in the criminal justice system who meet eligibility criteria for the life-changing services of a Veterans Treatment Court but who have been charged in a county that does not have a Veterans Treatment Court. The law also authorizes the Chief Administrator of the Courts to establish additional Veterans Treatment Courts around the state.
Under the new law, qualifying justice-involved veterans who are charged with certain criminal offenses—excluding domestic violence matters—in a county without a Veterans Treatment Court will be able to request that their cases be transferred to a Veterans Treatment Court in a neighboring county. This process will require the consent of both the district attorney for the county in which the charges were initially brought as well as the district attorney for the county into which the case will be transferred.
Veterans Treatment Courts allow veterans struggling with mental illness or substance use who are charged with crimes to receive treatment instead of punishment. New York State is home to the first Veterans Treatment Court in the country, established in Buffalo in 2008 after the Hon. Robert Russell observed that a Vietnam War veteran was struggling in the mental health court over which he presided in Buffalo. This ultimately led Judge Russell to recognize the value of connecting justice-involved veterans with their fellow veterans on their challenging rehabilitative journeys. The first veterans who volunteered to serve as peer mentors in Judge Russell's brand-new veterans-focused specialized court in 2008 were all Vietnam War Veterans.
Judge Robert Russell said, "Thank you and the team at the New York State Health Foundation for your support of Veterans Treatment Courts and the Veterans Treatment Court transfer legislation. The veterans of our state have made tremendous sacrifices for our freedom. This legislation affords veterans seen in our justice system the opportunity to participate, irrespective of where that veteran may reside, into a Veterans Treatment Court."
Dr. Patrick Welch said, "When Judge Robert Russell started the first Veteran Treatment Court in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008, little did we realize this would become an international phenomenon. What has been created through Veteran Treatment Courts is the most profound change in the attitude of our criminal justice system towards veterans in the history of this country. This new law ensures that any justice involved veteran will have an opportunity to repair their life."
Today, more than 400 Veterans Treatment Courts have been established across the United States, following the same fundamental framework that Judge Russell developed in Buffalo. More than 30 of these courts exist throughout New York State, but access to them has long been uneven because they have not been established in every county. The bill signed by Governor Cuomo yesterday ensures that more eligible veterans are afforded access to life-changing Veteran Treatment Courts.
Landmarks Illuminated in Red, Green, and Yellow
Iconic landmarks across the state were illuminated on the night of March 29 in the colors of red, green, and yellow, the colors of the Vietnam Service Ribbon earned by the American Service Members who served on the ground in Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, or in the contiguous waters or airspace of these areas, during the Vietnam War.
Landmarks lit in commemoration of Vietnam Veterans Day included One World Trade Center, the Albany International Airport Gateway, the Kosciuszko Bridge, the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge, the H. Carl McCall SUNY Building, the Alfred E. Smith State Office Building, the State Education Building, State Fairgrounds—Expo Center, Grand Central Terminal—Pershing Square Viaduct and Niagara Falls, demonstrating New York's commitment to serving Veterans of the Vietnam War Era—not just on a special day of commemoration, but every day.
An estimated 226,045 Vietnam War Era Veterans live in New York State today, comprising the largest population group of Veterans from any era of military service to call the Empire State their home. Of the names listed on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., 4,119 are those of New Yorkers who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of this nation and the values for which it stands.
New York State Division of Veterans' Services Executive Deputy Director Joel Evans said, "Too often, our veterans did not receive the welcome home that they deserved when they returned from their military service. It was a privilege to recognize them on Vietnam War Veterans Day, just as our Division honors and serves them every day. This year, it was also a special pleasure to celebrate and commemorate the service of Vietnam War Veterans from New York's tribal nations, thanking these Native American Veterans for their courage and their commitment."
On March 29, the New York State Division of Veterans' Services hosted an online program on the afternoon of Vietnam War Veterans Day honoring the service and sacrifice of New York's Native American Veterans who served during the Vietnam War Era. Vietnam War Veterans from the Mohawk Nation in the North Country, the Oneida Nation in Central New York, the Seneca Nation in Western New York, and the Shinnecock Nation on Long Island took part in this ceremony, celebrating the vast tradition of service in the United States military among these tribal nations.
Native Americans serve in the United States Armed Forces at five times the national average. Approximately 82,000 Native Americans, or one in every four who were eligible, served on active duty during the Vietnam War Era, with 42,000 Native Americans serving in combat.
Agnes Jacobs, Tribal Sub-Chief of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Nation, said, "Since time immemorial, Akwesasne Mohawks have participated in all branches of the United States Armed Forces. As we have seen in recent years, with the presentation of congressional medals for our code talkers our Mohawks take immense pride to serve. Unfortunately not all returned from the same way as they left-some made the ultimate sacrifice and never came home. Finally today is an opportunity for all of us to share the respect, honor and gratitude for our men and women for their military service. Congratulations and 'Niawenkowa/Thank you.'"