Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Unequal Justice

Court systems across the country have recently been opening special courts for veterans who get in trouble with the law. It turns out that a lot of veterans get into trouble. According to one court that has set up a special court for veterans, nearly three quarters of a million veterans are currently awaiting trial or serving some sort of sentence for crimes they were convicted of.

The aim of these special courts is supposedly to help veterans who have drug or alcohol addictions or other problems learn to get along in society, now that they are no longer part of the separate military society. It sounds like a worthwhile goal, but these programs are dangerous.

It wasn't so long ago that judges in U.S. courts would give an accused lad a choice – go to jail or join the army. Sure, it sent a bunch of misfits into the military, but the military was supposedly used to dealing with misfits. They had strict discipline, and they turned boys into men. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn't, but in the meantime, and in wartime, local judges were viewed as being patriotic for helping to fill the military's recruitment quotas. Until recently, no one paid much attention to the kinds of havoc misfits caused once they were wearing the uniform and carrying guns.

Military personnel still receive special treatment when they commit crimes while they are in the military. While in service, they are generally immune from prosecution under the laws that govern civilians. If they commit crimes, they get to be tried not by juries of their peers and judges who are elected or appointed according to the law, but instead they are tried by military tribunals, where the procedures and sentences are different. The attitudes of the people doing the judging are also different. The judges in military tribunals are all in the military themselves and are concerned about the image and morale of the military, in addition to whatever concern they might or might not have for victims, particularly for victims who are in distant lands and unfamiliar cultures.

Now, with the creation of special courts for veterans, offenders are given special treatment not only while they are in service, but for the rest of their lives after they have left the military, even if they were thrown out of the military. The special courts have special judges who are supposed to understand the problems that veterans have. The special courts hand out special punishments instead of sending veterans to jail, and they allow convicted veterans to wipe their records clean at the end of their sentences so that no one will ever know about the bad things they did.

To the extent that the veterans' courts are responding to drug and alcohol addiction by veterans, some of these provisions seem reasonable. But since these same sorts of provisions are already in place for non-veteran addicts, there doesn't seem to be any need to treat the veteran addicts any differently. By setting up veterans' courts, politicians can cut funding for programs that help ordinary addicts, but still seem to be helping veterans.

Our courts have treated different groups differently before. Blacks and and poor people have experienced different treatment from whites and the wealthy for a long, long time. But at least in theory, the goal was always equal treatment under the law. Now, with veterans courts, we are establishing courts which have the express goal of special treatment for some people.

I am concerned that one group of accused people will be getting better treatment than another. But I am more concerned that society in general will be deprived of whatever measure of justice our courts are capable of delivering. When judges are pre-disposed to protect the accused, the victims are at risk. When veterans' records of convictions are erased, the public is misled. When judges know that they are serving a special group which has a lobby that is powerful enough to affect the judges' careers, the judges will judge differently.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided a long time ago that “separate but equal” cannot be equal. The people who are setting up veterans courts know that, and they are deliberately making sure that the “justice” for veterans is separate from the “justice” for non-veterans. It is obvious why they are doing this, and sad that they are getting away with it. Eventually, it will result in two sets of criminal law rules: those that apply to most people, and those that apply just to veterans. It will also result in two sets of criminals, ordinary criminals, and veteran criminals who know they are going to get special treatment. Does the military really want to become known as the place our elite criminals come from?

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