Susan Gibbs has no complaints about her cramped, tight workspace in the Waterbury Superior Courthouse. No matter how compact it may be, it is a major upgrade from her former office with the Connecticut Jail Diversion program: her car and a brief case. “Judge [Richard] Damiani actually asked that I be placed here. He’s very pro-veteran,” Gibbs explained. Along with colleague Jessica Marshal, Gibbs is a caseworker for Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO), a federal jail diversion program sponsored by the US Department of Veterans Affairs.
Formed with the intent of offering alternative sentencing and treatment to veterans entering the criminal justice system, VJO operates in every state, with Connecticut employing two specialists and the addition of a third expected within the year. Gibbs and Marshal work closely with existing jail diversion programs and identify veterans who may qualify for their program and VA benefits. The VA employs strict guidelines, stating that veterans who enlisted after 1980 must have served 24 consecutive months and been honorably discharged. Any servicemen in the National Guard must have been deployed – a necessary measure given the US military’s recent level of involvement in the Middle East.
VJO is not a rehabilitation or treatment program; they act as treatment brokers. Working within the courts and prisons, Gibbs and Marshal meet with potential clients in lock up and present possible treatment plans to judges. “The veterans now know us. Many referrals come from word of mouth, but the majority still come from other court providers, other clinical teams within the VA, as well as when we run the arraignment list each morning,” Marshal said. After identifying veterans who are eligible for VA benefits, clients are released with a promise to appear and directed to the VA or other state service providers to receive the aid they need, whether it be housing, healthcare, or substance abuse counseling.
Throughout her career in jail diversion programs, Gibbs has dealt with any offender society has to offer, ranging from those suffering from crippling, prolonged mental illnesses, to habitual DUI or assault cases. Working with veteran offenders, however, presents entirely new challenges. They cannot be lumped in with the general incarcerated population simply because they often present with specific issues. They are a unique, distinguished group facing the same hardship and adversity many offenders do, coupled with the sometimes-jarring transition back into mainstream society. In a recession America where a job hunt can spiral into a personal crusade, the thousands of veterans returning from the Middle East and flooding the job market are having as difficult a time as any finding work. In 2011, unemployment among veterans age 20-24 averaged 30 percent, more than double nonveterans in that demographic. The situation appears even bleaker, as an estimated one million veterans will enter the work force over the next five years.
It’s sort of the mass causality nature…that calls us to action in a way that other things may not.