From Student to Practitioner: My Time at NADCP 2018

Caroline at GraduationJust four years ago I was sitting with this exact (probably outdated, now) laptop trying to sell myself to American University’s admissions team. In my application, I vowed to engage in every opportunity possible to immerse myself in the criminal justice education I was pursuing. Four years later, I can proudly say that after completing three internships, graduating with University and Latin Honors, getting hired at the Justice Programs Office, and accepting a scholarship to attend the Washington College of Law (WCL), I have done just that. Now, after attending the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) Annual Conference in Houston, I know I am ready to pursue my own legal career and advocate for these life-changing specialty dockets.

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Caroline in front of the Framingham District Court

My first internship was in Framingham, Massachusetts, the summer before my junior year. Although the Red Sox didn’t win over my heart, Framingham is a very special place to me and the career I am pursuing. Through Cappetta Law Offices, I had the privilege of shadowing Defense Attorney Dan Cappetta in veterans treatment court (VTC). If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of treatment courts, they are judicially supervised court dockets that restructure the way people are processed through the criminal justice system by grouping crimes or offenders, in this case veterans, together to provide specialized treatment for underlying issues like substance abuse or mental health issues that stem from PTSD or combat-related trauma. In VTC I learned about a non-adversarial approach to criminal justice. I watched as Judge Michael Fabbri, a fellow veteran, became personally acquainted with each participant in his treatment court program. I learned how treatment can work better when your prosecutor and defense attorney are working together with your Veterans Affairs social worker and probation officer to find solutions to the underlying issues causing you to commit crime. Seeing this new type of court unfold before my eyes left me with one question: Why doesn’t every county have this?

Caroline at NADCP
Caroline at the National Association of Drug Court Professionals Conference

My time at Cappetta Law Offices and my own research into veterans treatment courts led me to the Justice Programs Office, where since January, I have been collecting important resources to distribute to veterans, treatment court personnel, and mental health professionals via the Veterans’ Justice and Mental Health Newsletter. Last week, I had the privilege of attending the NADCP’s annual conference. There were hundreds of sessions to choose from, and it was extremely hard to narrow down the choices. The top three sessions I attended were:

1. “I Walk the Line” – Ethical Considerations for Defense Attorneys in Problem Solving Courts

Thankfully, this session revealed a lot about what life would be like as a defense attorney in VTCs. I got the impression that a law degree does not necessarily prepare defense attorneys for working in VTCs. I learned that a lot of the time, they have to use their best judgment to play a dual role as a defense attorney and a social worker. I heard firsthand about adjusting to a non-adversarial courtroom and how difficult it can be to balance your client’s confidentiality even if doing so is not best for their treatment. The three attorneys presenting from Kings County truly inspired me. As I start law school in August, I am more prepared, know which difficult questions to ask my professors, and I will carry their enthusiasm with me. This session only solidified my career path as a prospective defense attorney in VTCs.

2. Voices of Veteran Treatment Court Graduates[2]

This session really opened my eyes and reminded me of the end goal of VTCs as I watched a panel of three graduates speak about their experiences. I felt their pride in completing the program and understood how emotional that was for them by hearing the cracks in their voices. I witnessed their unity from participating together and saw how well they understood what each other was going through. This further solidified my belief that veterans should be grouped together in their own courts, as they were used to being grouped together while serving and can look at treatment as a new battle they can still conquer together. I appreciated the vulnerability that these three men showed complete strangers and understood it was to help illustrate to others how well treatment courts can work. I got to hear them talk about their sobriety, regaining custody of their children, continuing their education, and celebrating 17 years of marriage all because these courts cared enough to treat them.

3. Working Effectively with Trauma-Impacted Juveniles and Young Adults in the Juvenile Justice and Adult Criminal Justice Systems

I attended this session to gain a better understanding of trauma-informed care. From my studies, I previously understood that it involved meeting people where they are and responding with the kindness you would like to be shown on your worst day. However, through this session, I learned how to better understand trauma and how to react with empathy rather than kindness—not just being pleasant but truly feeling their distress as your own. The speaker, Isaiah Pickens, said something that has stuck with me since: “Trauma is not an excuse for behavior, rather an explanation.” This quote proves that treatment courts are not about “letting offenders off easy” rather that they are at their core, trauma-informed. They are specially designed to treat offenders, lower recidivism, and most importantly, improve the quality of life for participants.

Caroline with Judge Russell
Caroline with Judge Robert Russell, founder of the first veterans treatment court

After attending the training sessions at NADCP, I feel prepared and excited to take my passion for VTCs to the WCL. There I aim to create meaningful partnerships with local veteran organizations that can connect veterans to legal aid through WCL clinics. I hope other students can experience this valuable work so that our criminal justice system vastly expands treatment courts and they become the norm in helping to reduce mass incarceration.

[1] Presented by Attorneys John Drenning, Jamie Kvistad, and Heidi Rettinghouse

[2] Presented by Hon. Marc Carter and T’Liza Kiel

Caroline Koch is a student associate at the Justice Programs Office working on the veterans treatment court issues.

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