Edward Hernandez was sitting on a bench in the Lower Manhattan courthouse, waiting for his case to be heard.
It was the end of September and he was accused of identity theft and credit card stealing. Hernandez, who had served in the US Army, had been trying for months to get into the Veterans Treatment Tribunal, a little-known program that helps former military personnel struggling with mental illness, addiction, or both.
Mr. Hernandez, 59, has used heroin for most of the last 35 years. She’s been clean since she overdosed in the spring of 2021 when she had stents and a pacemaker inserted to maintain her heartbeat.
He had already appeared before a judge in August, two weeks after his father’s death. He arrived five hours early that day because he didn’t want to miss the hearing. He worried that the stress of his father’s death would test his ability to stay clean.
He had managed until now. Now he made the sign of the cross when he returned to the courtroom.
New York State has 34 Veterans Treatment Courts, including one in Manhattan. For defendants like Mr. Hernandez, admission may mean special care rather than jail time. They can get counseling and help with finding a job and a place to stay. Some can mend relationships that have been broken for a long time.
But even at a time when veterans really need support, the cost and effectiveness of such courts is difficult to determine. The Manhattan court faces challenges similar to those of nearly 600 veterans’ courts nationwide: Caseloads are often small, can take months to get in, and data on how many veterans are easily identified and referred to these programs and how many manage to stay in and out of employment. According to the Criminal Justice Council’s August report, the issue is sadly incomplete.
Veterans serving after the September 11, 2001 attacks may be particularly vulnerable to committing crimes, as they are twice as likely to have been in combat and have higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder. However, the report said it was unclear how many of the approximately 19 million veterans in the United States had entered the criminal justice system. And data on the youngest veterans are scant.
New York City officials cited anecdotal evidence that the courts were working and encouraged expansion of their programs. But Bianca Vitale, a senior policy analyst in the city’s Department of Veterans Services, said it’s difficult to quantify their impact in the five counties.
Ms. Vitale spoke at a hearing on 13 December, where City Council members discussed how to support state courts. It was the first such meeting in seven years. “The big problem here is that there aren’t many public reports to evaluate courts,” he said, and “we can’t identify needs unless we do an evaluation of the programs.”
Headed by former Manhattan district attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr., prosecutors said they screened nearly 200 defendants for admission from 2017 to 2021, according to a report the office released in December 2021. 65 of them participated. The report does not disclose whether the remaining 135 defendants withdrew from the program or were rejected by the district attorney or judge.
Doug Cohen, a spokesman, said that between last January, when Alvin L. Bragg took over as district attorney, and September, the office agreed to send eight defendants for court consideration. The three of them decided to join.
The district attorney, however, was unable to say how many defendants he considered for the program and could not talk about how the office under Mr. Vance had come up with the 2021 statistics.
“The Office has historically not systematically followed referrals to the Veterans Treatment Tribunal,” said Mr. Cohen. He added that the office is working to increase referrals to specialized courts and to improve data collection on such programs.
Still, the courts can be a lifeline for the likes of Mr. Hernandez.
Born on the Lower East Side, she and her three eldest siblings were raised by Catholic nuns until their adoptive father remarried and brought them back home after their mother died. Mr. Hernandez said his family was loving but strict. According to military records, he enlisted in the US Army in 1982 at the age of 18. Sent to Fort Jackson, SC and later transferred to Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala.
The heroin nearly killed Edward Hernandez, whose heart was slowing to 34 beats per minute. Credit… Jose A. Alvarado Jr. for The New York Times.
He got into trouble there. He said he tried drugs and helped another soldier steal items from the barracks. According to the records, he was court-martialed in 1983 and discharged the following year.
Within a week of returning to New York, he met a woman who was his wife and mother of two children. He soon stopped selling cocaine and eventually started using heroin. “That’s when I married the streets,” said Mr. Hernandez.
He was in and out of prison for over thirty years, convicted of forgery and stealing and selling drugs he said he was committed to promoting his heroin addiction. Then, while on parole last year, Mr. Hernandez overdosed at Samaritan Daytop Village, an outpatient facility in Queens for people with substance abuse or mental health problems. A nurse checked her pulse. He said shooting caused his heart rate to slow to 34 beats per minute.
He was admitted to a hospital, where he underwent the first of two heart surgeries. After using it for nearly forty years, she wanted to quit. “I want to be able to call my kids, find a job,” she said. “I want to be someone. I want to be the person my parents always wanted me to be.”
To bring defendants to Manhattan veterans court, defense attorneys often refer candidates to prosecutors, who then decide whether to bring them before a judge. Defendants must prove they are veterans – obtaining military records could slow the process, Mr. Cohen said – and they must be charged with a felony. They must also admit their guilt, although charges are usually dismissed after completing the program.
July 6 of this year was the first time Mr. Hernandez appeared before Judge Juan Merchan, who presided over the Manhattan veterans’ court and had the final say on who would be admitted.
Judge Merchan took over the court in 2019. At first he was apprehensive about connecting with the defendants—he’s not a veteran—but he made it a point to learn more about the military. He said the mood of this court is different from most criminal cases he has overseen, including the recent case against the Trump Organization. Defendants are invited to speak directly to the judge and often describe the setting as welcoming.
Judge Merchan wants to put the accused at ease when he needs to meet with lawyers in private.
“If I was sitting at the defense table and saw all these people talking about me, it would bother me,” he said in a recent interview. “That’s why I always tell them, ‘I’m sorry for the whisper. They let me know a little more about you, and that’s how I feel now.’
“I want to know more about them. Are they married? Do they have children? Where do they live? Have they been treated in the past? Knowing all these factors will contribute to their success.”
The full cost of courts in New York State is difficult to understand, and so is the cost of potentially expanding them. Court spokesman Lucian Chalfen said money came from various parts of the state court budget, but did not say exactly how much was allocated to each veterans court. Various federal agencies also contribute.
There is no fee for peer advisors of the program, such as Vietnam War veteran Herbert Sweat, who fought in the Tet offensive in 1968 as part of the Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade. He mentored other veterans for nearly 25 years, eight of them in veteran courts.
Mr. Sweat drives from Garden City on Long Island every Wednesday to attend the veterans court in Manhattan, which is held for about 90 minutes once a week. When defendants appear before the judge, the judge stands next to them and writes down information about each case in a composition notebook. To pay tribute to his Shinnecock legacy, he always wears a bolo tie to court.
Many of his mentors struggle even after getting on the show: In July, a man with thin white hair and thick dark glasses admitted to using cocaine again and hung his head as he shuffled out of the courtroom. Another defendant told the judge that he was depressed and at times unmotivated.
Mr. Ter, who was in the courtroom, looked at the second defendant. “He was there for us at some point in his life,” Mr. Sweat said. “We all make mistakes, so I have to be there for them.”
Two months later, Mr. Sweat sat on the bench behind Mr. Hernandez while he awaited his trial. Mr. Hernandez looked at his phone and saw a message from his brother, Richie Hernandez. “Brother, you should be fine,” he said.
Then, just before 3 PM, Judge Merchan asked him to come forward.
The judge remembered Mr. Hernandez from appearing in court in August. “I am very impressed with you,” he said. He complimented Mr. Hernandez on his suit and tie.
Mr. Hernandez waited at the defense table while Judge Merchan reviewed the paperwork. Within five minutes, the judge smiled at Mr. Hernandez. She told him she was accepted.
Mr. Hernandez returned to his seat and cried. “This is the best news I’ve ever heard in my life,” he said.
He turned to Mr. Ter, who stood up and slapped him on the shoulder and fist as he left the courtroom.