NYS Defenders Association Launches Veterans Defense Program

ALBANY, NY (04/10/2014)(readMedia)-- The New York State Defenders Association (NYSDA) has launched a Veterans Defense Program. Jonathan E. Gradess, NYSDA's Executive Director, noted that this veterans' initiative is the most recent and far-reaching of NYSDA's long-standing efforts to bring about more informed representation of military personnel and veterans who become involved in state criminal or family court matters. "We've been working toward effective ways of dealing with the problems experienced by some returning military personnel devastated by combat and other military-related trauma for a long time," Gradess stated.

"With its focus on the military experiences of justice-involved people, this Program embodies the growing awareness that comprehensive representation is not a luxury but a necessity if the justice system is to live up to its name," Gradess said. "Focusing only on the behavior specifically addressed in a criminal charge or family court petition without a fuller context is like putting a Band-Aid on a compound fracture," he went on.

Gary A. Horton heads the new Program. Recently retired as Genesee County Public Defender, he has been involved at the local level on justice-involved veterans' issues. As President of the Board of Directors of the Genesee Veterans Support Network, Horton works to bring about projects such as the Veterans Service Coordination and Mentoring program of the Batavia Drug Court.

"The Veterans Defense Program will focus on how military service may have contributed to behaviors that lead clients into court and, more specifically, how to address these clients' needs in a way that furthers all the goals of our justice system," Horton said.

His experience as a public defender gave Horton insight that provides a foundation for the new work. He told The Batavian at the time of his retirement that public defense clients often "come to us with other problems than their criminal case or family court case that they have to deal with." The Veterans Defense Program will allow Horton to focus on one specific set of client problems.

The Program will provide training, and will encourage lawyers to engage in best practices when representing clients whose military experiences may be relevant to their cases. It will also raise awareness of the problem among other justice system stakeholders, local and state officials and the public, and develop, evaluate, and then educate others about proposals for justice system reforms to appropriately address these issues.

Initially the Program will focus on six areas:

• developing protocols and procedures for the identification and representation of veterans;

• training defense lawyers in identifying and presenting evidence connected to clients' military experience and resulting cognitive and behavioral consequences;

• providing backup for lawyers representing veterans;

• providing direct litigation support;

• providing assistance to public defense programs in developing partnerships with community resources for veterans; and

• developing veteran specific restorative justice programs.

In addition to Horton, the new Program staff will include Dee Quinn Miller. She met Horton and Gradess through their pro bono representation of The Forgotten Victims of Attica, a group coordinated by Miller. That organization successfully sought recognition of and recompense for the suffering of prison workers injured, and for the families of prison workers who died, during the historic uprising at Attica prison in 1971. Before coming to the NYSDA Veterans Defense Program, Miller was the Executive Director of the Genesee Veterans Support Network, a non-profit assisting veterans residing in Genesee County. NYSDA is delighted that Miller has become the Veterans Defense Program Administrative Assistant.

NYSDA has been building the foundation for the new Veterans Defense Program for several years, as part of the Association's overall mission to improve the quality and scope of publicly supported legal representation to low income people.

Along the way NYSDA received $5000 in grant funding from the Lucius and Eva Eastman Fund, Inc. and a $5000 grant from The Barry Alan Gold Memorial Fund of The Community Foundation for the Greater Capital Region for the planning phase of the Veterans Defense Program. Multiple efforts since then to secure funding have now borne fruit. The funding to launch the Program was provided by VetsBridge.com, an online veterans' job skills matching program.