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Connecticut General Assembly Passes Bill Written by Vets Clinic Students; Troubled Connecticut Veterans Will Receive Treatment Instead of Jail Time

(Note: Connecticut Governor Dannell P. Malloy signed the bill on May 31, 2012.)

A bill to help state veterans charged with low-level criminal offenses avoid incarceration and get back on the right track has been approved by the Connecticut House and Senate, thanks to the efforts of four members of the Veterans Legal Services Clinic. Senate Bill 114 expands access to jail diversion programs for the veterans and allows them to receive mental health, substance abuse, and other types of treatment rather than jail sentences. The bill was written by clinic students Kate Cahoy ’12, Sofia Nelson ’13, Eric Parrie ’13, and Jon Fougner ’14 on behalf of the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center (CVLC), a clinic client.

“Some veterans return from war with wounds that many of us could not ever imagine or identify with,” said Cahoy, “and involvement in the criminal justice system may result before veterans realize they need help.”

“We know that veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have extremely high rates of post traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury, and that many cope with substance abuse,” said Margaret Middleton, executive director of the CVLC and a clinical visiting lecturer in law at the Law School. “Those issues commonly contribute to impulsive and thrill-seeking behaviors that end up with low-level charges like disturbing the peace. This bill will help those veterans get into appropriate treatment with providers who are educated in the unique needs and experiences of combat veterans.” 

The group on one of many trips to Hartford to advocate for the bill. L-R are Sofia Nelson, Margaret Middleton, Jon Fougner, and Mike Wishnie.

The clinic students began researching and drafting the bill last fall, examining laws in other states and meeting with key Connecticut stakeholders to determine the type of program that would best serve the needs of veterans. Working with the staff of the Select Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and various legislators, they drafted a bill that would address those needs and save the state money as well. They followed up by authoring a white paper on the bill for CVLC and made numerous trips to Hartford to meet with legislators, staff, and executive branch agencies. At the public hearing, Sofia Nelson testified with Middleton in support of the bill.

The students’ hard work was rewarded when, after having cleared the Veterans’ Affairs and Judiciary Committees earlier this year, the bill was unanimously approved by the Connecticut Senate on April 26 and the House on May 4.

“We are excited, and quite grateful to everyone who worked to help give veterans access to the services they need and recognized the unique challenges they face,” said Nelson. "Representative Jack Hennessy and Senator Carlo Leone, the co-chairmen for the Select Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and 54 other bipartisan co-sponsors of the bill, have led the General Assembly in proving its commitment to Connecticut’s veterans.”

“Our country has sent a very small segment of our society to fight a war and suffer injuries on our behalf, so we owe it to them to make sure they have a meaningful chance to heal,” added Cahoy. “If that means giving them a ‘second chance’ after committing a low-level crime, then I think it’s a small price to pay for the sacrifice they’ve made for the rest of us.”

Middleton says the bill is a win-win for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that jail diversion programs work. “Veterans who receive treatment instead of incarceration are more likely to continue to be contributing members of our society,” she said. She expressed her gratitude to the Law School students for working to get the legislation through:

“The students from the Yale Veterans Legal Services Clinic who worked on this project deserve every ounce of credit for its passage. They made this bill happen from the earliest research to the frantic last-minute late-night calls. Each of them demonstrated a huge range of talents necessary to get a bill like this past all of the potential hurdles. The Connecticut Veterans Legal Center could not have been more lucky to work with such an outstanding team.”

The Veterans Legal Services Clinic was founded in 2010 by Professor Mike Wishnie ’93 and Middleton to train students to address the needs of Connecticut’s military veterans. This year, the clinic was co-taught by Middleton and Visiting Clinical Associate Professor Fiona Doherty ’99. Doherty and Wishnie co-supervised the SB 114 project. The bill is expected to be signed soon by Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy.