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Treating criminal defendants as individuals: The military court and immigration consequence examples

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Too many criminal court judges and prosecutors see criminal defendants more as numbers than individuals. To treat them as individuals might incline them to allow more time for each case in the face of bursting court dockets, and will make them have to more directly confront the human consequences of how they treat each defendant’s case.

Military members and military veterans are about the most compelling defendants to humanize with judges and prosecutors. I take it that most judges and prosecutors like current and former military members, and feel that they have selflessly devoted themselves to their nation and fellow citizens. However, one nearby county has so many military members that prosecutors and judges seem reluctant to give much credit to them, to avoid opening a floodgate of criminal court benefits for military members.

Immigrants at first blush might seem a tougher sell to prosecutors and criminal court judges, but when I portray them as having followed the law in waiting their turn to obtain lawful immigration status, at least some prosecutors and judges will find compelling the harsh immigration status consequences from a whole host of convictions and sentencing schemes. Similarly, plenty of conviction categories will lead to military members losing their jobs.

I get my share of clients who are military members and employees with military defense contractors. A good number suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder from their wartime experiences. A trend is afoot in numerous states to have separate dockets addressing certain criminal cases involving military veterans as defendants. Here is a map showing those courts, and a Facebook page on the trend. Across the street from my law firm, chief misdemeanor court judge Penney S. Azcarate has a goal to add the Fairfax, Virginia courthouse added to that list, with an eye to starting  the veterans docket by January 2015.

It appears that the Fairfax veterans docket will be geared towards treatment. Good treatment cannot be one size fits all, and needs to fit within the principle of innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but it is a start. Hopefully, success in treatment will lead to more favorable case dispositions and more favorable sentences for those who are convicted.

Let us not stop at veterans, of course, in providing treatment alternatives to harsh court dispositions. Certainly, battlefield experience can cause severe psychological challenges, to say the least. Nevertheless, we have a whole host of civilians, as well, whose alleged crimes are heavily rooted in post-traumatic stress disorder, past abuse, depression, and drug abuse, among other factors.