In the summer of 1940, Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat based in Lithuania, made a critical decision. Jewish refugees and other Polish citizens had come to Lithuania seeking refuge, and a visa from the Japanese consulate represented one of the few avenues to the United States and Canada. While he had been instructed not to issue visas to anyone who did not meet the processing and financial requirements, Sugihara could not turn his back on the fates of the refugees. Sugihara hand-wrote what would have been a normal month’s production of visas every day over the course of a few weeks. It is estimated that his actions saved 6,000-10,000 lives.
Sugihara’s actions are cited as an example of the heroic imagination, “the capacity to imagine facing physically or socially risky situations, to struggle with the hypothetical problems these situations generate, and to consider one’s actions and the consequences.” In Sugihara’s situation, the stakes were clearly high. But, according to Philip Zimbardo, a researcher on the subject, the heroic imagination also calls for the ability to “[r]esist the urge to rationalize and justify inaction.” In other words, in situations where the consequences are not so stark, how can one summon the ability to act with heroic imagination?
The origins of the nation’s first veterans treatment court (also known as veterans court, and for us, a part of pretrial justice) seem to fall under this category. Robert Russell, a judge from Buffalo, New York, already had experience in treatment courts when he encountered a veteran in his mental health treatment court. Russell’s staff had notified him that the man, a Vietnam war vet, was going to his appointments but he was not engaged. It could have been a moment to look the other way, but Russell noted the stooped, unengaged posture of the man, his lack of eye contact, and uncommunicative nature, and decided to take a different approach. He called on two people in the room whom he knew to also be veterans of the Vietnam war, and asked them to speak to the man in the hallway.
When the man came back, according to Russell in a 2016 speech at Harvard Law School, he was different. He made eye-contact, and stood up straight in parade rest. When asked if had anything he wanted to say, the man said, “Judge, I’m going to try harder.” The man’s transformation caused Russell to ask whether the unique nature of veteran experiences should cause the courts to do something different, and this question led to a new genre of treatment court, which incorporates veteran mentors, volunteers who provide support and camaraderie, as well as resources that a vet has earned through the Veterans Administration. As of June 2016, the Department of Justice counted 461 veteran-focused court programs, with over 100 created in 2015. Each court is slightly different in terms of who they will accept and on what charges, but the primary focus is diverting veterans away from the criminal justice system and towards stability.
Recent studies show that veterans treatment courts are accomplishing their goals of creating stability and diverting veterans away from the criminal justice system. A 2018 study found that “39% of veterans who were not in their own housing at program admission obtained their own housing at program exit and 29% who were initially not receiving VA benefits were receiving VA benefits at program exit.” Participants in veterans treatment court also have lower rates of recidivism than the general rate among people involved in the criminal justice system.
The key now is to extend the spirit of the heroic imagination more deeply throughout pretrial justice. Heroic imagination calls us to fight the urge to say it’s ‘only’ a few days in jail. Heroic imagination calls us to look directly at the devastation of fines and fees on families and communities, and question the wisdom of creating more financial burdens for poor people by assigning money bonds or fee-for-service supervision conditions before trial. The very first part of the military oath of enlistment is to “swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Veterans treatment courts are one way to recognize the service and sacrifice of men and women in uniform; honoring the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution is another.