WARWICK, R.I. — William Delaney, a former Marine, had already served four years of probation for an alcohol-related offense in Florida and was back in court, this time in Rhode Island, for driving under the influence. His newest brush with the law, combined with his alcoholism and depression, he feared, could close the door on the rest of his life.
That was almost two and a half years ago. Delaney now mentors other veterans in that same court, and he's working toward earning his master's degree in social work to continue helping veterans.
The Veterans Treatment Court opened five years ago in Warwick, Rhode Island, as the first specialty court in New England to help veterans avoid jail and turn their lives around. Like Delaney, most of the 220 veterans who have completed the program haven't committed another offense. The rate of recidivism stands at about 6 percent, according to the court.
"We judge ourselves really harshly in addition to how the court judges us because of how far we've fallen," Delaney said. "It's just devastating. Even such a small thing as having a judge smile and say she understands, and having a treatment team that truly cares, it's a spark. It makes you believe you can do it differently this time."
For Delaney, that jurist was Associate Judge Pamela Woodcock Pfeiffer.
"She seemed like she cared. She reminded me of who I could be and who I was. I wasn't the bad guy," he said. "I wasn't the lost, drunk person. I could be something better again. That was the life-changing moment."
Woodcock Pfeiffer also has kind words for the court and for veterans like Delaney.
"I am totally convinced it's working," Woodcock Pfeiffer said. "People are very clear that if it were not for this, then they would have all these problems."
The first veterans treatment court started in 2008 in Buffalo, New York. Similar courts sprang up nationwide as a way to help reform the criminal justice system, lower costs by reducing the prison population and recidivism rates, and connect veterans with treatment programs.
Today, there are more than 250 and hundreds more are planned, according to Justice For Vets, which advocates for the establishment of the courts and provides training for jurisdictions with new courts.
The Rhode Island court has received hundreds of referrals from District Court for misdemeanor cases. Veterans can opt to stay in District Court, where their case would likely be resolved faster.
If they go to the veterans court, they have to follow whatever treatment the court prescribes to address substance abuse, behavioral or other issues and regularly check in with court staff, usually for 10 months to a year. At the end, often their case is dismissed entirely and expunged.
The court currently has about 70 active cases.
Chief District Judge Jeanne E. LaFazia said the veterans court gives people tools to reintegrate into their community. She credits Woodcock Pfeiffer for getting to know the veterans well, which invests them in the process.
"By the time you get someone in here, they are often at rock bottom," LaFazia said. "You're helping them rebuild themselves. It's a remarkable difference."
Both LaFazia and Woodcock Pfeiffer said the state has a duty to help veterans and give them a chance.
The court holds graduation ceremonies for veterans who complete treatment. At a recent ceremony, Woodcock Pfeiffer praised the veterans for their hard work and asked them pointed questions about their future plans to make sure they would not fall back on old patterns.
"I hope we've been able to give you hope, and the ability to control some of the things that sometimes control you," she said.
The veterans were presented with a coin in the style of a military command coin, which is meant to show one's military affiliation and instill pride.
It bears the last six words of the Pledge of Allegiance: With liberty and justice for all.