Jeffrey Cox had been planning a veterans' project for three years, but it was not until he had a conversation with one of his National Guard colleagues at a Superbowl party—and some encouragement from UMass Boston —did he ever think it would take shape.
Major Jeffery Cox, an alumnus of the Graduate Certificate Program in Conflict Resolution at UMass Boston's McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, is an Iraq veteran and a clinical social worker with the Massachusetts National Guard who studied mediation while at McCormack. An expert on transitional support for the seriously wounded and ill soldiers and veterans, he saw the need for a therapeutic justice system for them.
On May 8, Cox brought together a group who met with Lt. Governor Tim Murray asking for an earmarked grant of $750,000 for a three-year pilot project to develop and study an alternative justice system for veterans. The project, based in part at McCormack's Center for Peace, Democracy, and Development, seeks both to set up a veterans’ court and to study its impact, in order to provide both experience and data for Massachusetts to consider using the model statewide.
"There is a great need for progressive justice measures, particularly as they pertain to veterans," he explained, noting that many veterans' court cases of assault and battery or driving under the influence are related to post-traumatic stress disorder, separation anxiety, and other mental health issues.
A successful model currently exists in Dedham court, but there has been no scientific analysis of its efficacy. So Cox and his colleague, Brett Walker, a veteran with 13 years active duty and Army National Guard service and a law student at Boston College, approached their faculty advisors to bring their dream to fruition.
Associate Professor Darren Kew, executive director of CPDD, and Paul Atwood, former director of UMass Boston's Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences, encouraged Cox and his colleagues to organize a championship team of academics, veterans, social workers, psychologists, mental health counselors, and community activists to form the Veterans’ Court Consortium.
Two other McCormack Grad School students are also participating on the team; they include David de Ganne, an Iraqi veteran and fellow at Kew's center, and conflict resolution master's degree student, Lisa Jacobson, a lawyer for the Women's Bar Association who works with victims of trauma.
State Representative Tom Sannicandro, an attorney and chair of the Committee on Higher Education, strongly supports the research project that, if funded, will be a joint project with faculty and students at UMass Boston, Boston College Law School, Harvard University (through its affiliation with McClain Hospital), and Framingham State College.
A 2011 report showed that approximately 20 per cent of the 2 million American veterans who did one or more tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan report mental health issues. According to Cox, half of all veterans are not getting the services they need or are entitled to receive. To complicate this further, the Veterans’ Administration hospitals have a backlog of six months to offer mental health services to these war veterans.
"This is a population that can benefit from counseling and peer-to-peer mentoring," Cox explained, adding that these therapeutic justice measures could decrease incarceration costs and diminish recidivism numbers. A successful model for veterans could also be adapted for use with the wider population.
The lieutenant governor praised the "can-do attitude and spirit of collaboration" of the advocates. Murray endorsed the consortium's goals but spoke of the challenges of court reform and a forthcoming change in leadership for the court system.
Cox, Kew, Atwood, and others will return to the State House on May 22 at 11 a.m. for a legislative forum, in hopes that representatives will fund their pilot program.
Walker concluded his speech to the lieutenant governor and representatives from the Department of Veterans' Services who attended the May 8 meeting, "Massachusetts is a leader is education, medicine, and technology. It is now time for the state to take a leadership role in veteran justice programs, too.”