This article accompanies the feature “The JD Entrepreneurs.”
Lately, there’s a lot of news about veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq to uncertain prospects for a future outside of the military. But some are finding their way back into civilian life via education. The number of veterans coming to Stanford Law has surged during the past few years. And their pres ence on campus is being felt both in and outside of the classroom.
A TOUGH ROAD HOME
Gavriel Jacobs signed up for the Marines in 2003 when he was a high school senior. “The Iraq War had just started and 9/11 was fresh. So it was a combination of thinking it was my generation’s moment to serve and not wanting to miss that moment,” says Jacobs, JD ’13, adding that he wasn’t a good student and had no plans to go to college. He did two tours in Iraq’s Anbar Province where he was part of the “heavy armor,” he says. “When they needed the big guns, they called us. ”
His life changed near the end of his second tour of duty, when his unit was ambushed—and what should have been a four-year stint ended up as five, the bonus year spent in the hospital. “The first six or seven months the doctors tried to fix my leg and I kept refusing to consent to an amputation,” says Jacobs. He eventually agreed with his doctors and lost the lower half of his right leg. He then spent another seven months or so learning to walk again.
Jacobs used his time in the hospital not only to recuperate but also to study—earning enough credit from a nearby community college to enter the University of Washington as a junior upon his release. He’d grown up during his time in the military and discovered he enjoyed learning and did well academically. He also found himself on a very different trajectory—one that eventually led him to Stanford Law School.
The idea of a career in law came to Jacobs gradually. He had been thinking about pursuing police work, perhaps as a detective. “I was a little rudderless after the amputation,” he says. “But a few months into college I realized that I could sort of flank it—I could get into criminal work from the court side.”
Once at Stanford Law, Jacobs and another veteran, Jake Klonoski, JD ’13, saw a critical mass of military service personnel among their classmates and in the class that followed.
Gabriel Ledeen, JD ’12, welcomed the new veterans to Stanford Law. “My class had maybe three veterans. Then suddenly there were like ten veterans in that one class. We were all really excited. We set up mentorship groups to help them get through the 1L year. And as we got to know each other, the idea of a veterans student organization took hold,” he says.
“We sort of said ‘why isn’t there an organization for the vets?’ So we started one,” says Jacobs.
The Stanford Law Veterans Organization, formally launched in 2010, provides a way for students with that common experience to meet, while also sharing with the wider law school community the unique perspectives that military service offered them. It also led to the creation of a special seminar class to study something very close to them: the thousands of veterans in America’s criminal justice system.
STUDYING VETERANS IN THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM
Ledeen was a sophomore at Rice University studying philosophy and cognitive science when the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, happened. “I decided that it was important for me to do the right thing—something I could be proud of and tell my children and grandchildren about someday,” he says. Ledeen hadn’t been planning a career in the military but called the recruiting officer that very day. When he graduated from Rice, he went right into his commission in the Marine Corps and served two deployments to Iraq. It was while working with locals in Anbar Province, Iraq, setting up a market district, that he started to think about applying to law school. “There I was trying to establish the rule of law and commerce in this country and I realized how little I knew about the workings of my own country.” He chose Stanford for both the size and the spirit of the place.
“Stanford is less competitive than some of the other top law schools. You get to know your teachers and classmates well. And a lot can come from that,” he says.
Ledeen also found Stanford to be a hotbed of innovation and entrepreneurialism. “At Stanford we’re encouraged to pursue our interests and to start things. Faculty and staff support students. When they come up with ideas, they take them seriously,” he says.
Last spring Jacobs and Ledeen decided to start a project to look at the growing number of veterans in the criminal justice system. They met with Stanford Criminal Justice Center faculty and staff and tossed around some ideas. “They got excited about it and very quickly a seminar took shape, within weeks,” says Ledeen. The class, a seminar limited to seven participants (currently made up of four veterans and three non-veterans) began in fall 2011. Students in the class take a research and policy approach to examining the experiences of veterans in the criminal justice system, including identifying the nature and demographics of the population, the unique challenges they face while incarcerated and when returning home from prison/jail, and promising approaches to addressing their involvement in the criminal justice system such as veterans treatment courts.
“The course book for a class like this has not been written yet. We don’t think there is another student research project like this,” says Robert Weisberg, JD ’79, Edwin E. Huddleson, Jr. Professor of Law and faculty co-director, Stanford Criminal Justice Center (SCJC), who spent time before the start of the class developing a comprehensive literature review on the subject, something that was lacking because the problems facing this generation of war veterans are new. “There are direct service clinics, but not a policy practicum. This is a very new area of academic focus.”
Weisberg is the formally designated teacher for the class, though he doesn’t want to overplay his role. “Obviously, I am not the ‘instructor’ in any conventional sense. I am just learning about some of the issues and know far less about many or most of them than some of the students,” he says “So with the help of Debbie Mukamal, SCJC executive director, I’m mainly playing the role of organizer and synthesizer.”
RESEARCH WITH A PURPOSE
Students in the class have been working with their teams well beyond the fall quarter, into the winter and spring, looking at specific issues facing veterans in the criminal justice system. The hope, says Weisberg, is that the research papers that result from their efforts will inform public debate and guide various agencies of criminal justice in addressing them, including members of the California Interagency Council on Veterans created by Governor Brown in August 2011. The scope of the problem, though, is daunting.
As a nation fighting two wars for more than 10 years, the United States is also quickly becoming a nation of many veterans, something students in both the Law Veterans Organization and this course know full well. And while the challenges facing veterans may seem limited to that very special sector of society, containment is neither possible nor desirable given the size of the population. Mukamal rattles off some statistics, citing the National Drug Court Institute: there are 23 million veterans in the United States; 15 percent of veterans have been diagnosed with “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury, though, Mukamal adds, it’s likely many more are suffering from one or both and undiagnosed. Among veterans caught up in the criminal justice system, 65 percent are substance-dependent. Mukamal shares another piece of news that was recently reported: In the aftermath of some high-profile cases of veterans with PTSD, the Veteran’s Benefits Administration recently announced it will hire approximately 2,000 new mental health professionals to address unmet psychological needs of veterans.
Most of the students in the class have visited the Veterans Treatment Court (VTC) run by Judge Stephen V. Manley, JD ’66, of the Superior Court of California, County of Santa Clara. Here they see firsthand how the challenges facing veterans can be handled when treatment, rather than incarceration, is the aim. Manley, a nationally acclaimed innovator of reentry programs with a special interest in veterans, organized one of the nation’s first VTCs in 2008, in an attempt to deal with the very special challenges veterans face in navigating the criminal justice system.
Ledeen and Jacobs and their research teams have been exploring the justifications for VTCs (there are now approximately 97 VTCs in the United States), examining the degree to which those justifications are either contradicted or furthered by eligibility requirements. Another team is exploring the variety of procedures used in a number of VTCs around the country as well as the development of that procedure—making use of interviews, surveys, and courtroom observation to lay out sources of law and of experience with the law that have led different courts to adopt different procedures as well as how those pragmatic procedures might diverge from normative constitutional conceptions of due process.
Meanwhile Klonoski teamed up with Anne Hsieh, JD/MA ’12, for their research project, which focuses on how the military justice system addresses PTSD as either a defense or mitigating factor in sentencing. “Our hope is that the research will provide a comparative perspective from which to draw lessons for the continuing development of veterans treatment courts across the country,” says Hsieh, a West Point graduate who, come summer, will be a lawyer in the Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps. Prior to coming to Stanford Law, she was an Army captain and spent a year in Iraq managing construction projects—buildings, airfields, road repairs, and the like. “It was definitely eye-opening—not what I expected. It was 2006, at the height of sectarian violence, in the pre-surge time. My unit didn’t interact with the civilian population at all, which was for me disappointing,” she says. And while this petite mother with a new baby may not look the part, she’s very much a soldier.
“I was twenty-two years old and in charge of forty guys. And I know I look like I’m twelve,” she says. But West Point trained her well for the challenges of the leadership role she’d assume. When the end of her commission came, she decided to transition to JAG and become a military lawyer. She spent last summer with the NATO Training Mission’s Legal Development team in Afghanistan. And this research project is just the preparation she needs for that career.
“It’s particularly interesting because I know I’ll be litigating in the military system in six months,” says Hsieh. “We’re trying to understand the challenges and so are looking at how PTSD has been treated in military courts. So I’ve been looking at court martial records to see if and how it’s brought up. I’ll be facing this soon when I have clients with PSTD and other issues from having seen combat.”
Learn more about the Veterans in the Criminal Justice System seminar.