Veteran’s Treatment Courts Are Expanding

Veteran’s Treatment Courts Are Expanding

I have become a huge advocate of Veteran’s Treatment Courts. Veteran’s courts have emerged as a vital form of therapeutic and collaborative justice with proven effectiveness. When focused upon the unique challenges and trauma that afflict combat veterans, and drawing upon mentors, who themselves have been in combat and understand the frame of mind and spirit resulting from putting one’s life in harm’s way, veterans are able to again become contributing members of society. Having risked their very all to secure our liberties, our veterans deserve nothing less than the opportunity to heal that these courts provide with superior force and effect.

The first veteran’s court opened in Buffalo, N.Y. in 2008. The veteran’s court model is based on drug treatment and/or mental health treatment courts. Substance abuse or mental health treatment is offered as an alternative to incarceration.  Typically, veteran mentors assist with the programs. An important issue that has to be addressed is the eligibility for veteran’s courts in terms of whether charges involving felonies or crimes of violence will be allowed. The inclusion of offenders charged with inter-family violence is also of grave concern to policy makers.

Currently there are 143 veteran’s courts in operation, with several states having multiple courts. That is truly a tremendous leap of support and collaboration over the past six years! States that have five or more veteran’s courts operating are as follows:

States                   Courts

Pennsylvania          16

Michigan                14

Texas                     12

Florida                    12

California                11

Illinois                     10

Wisconsin                8

Alabama                  7

Washington             6

Arizona                    5

Georgia                    5

Missouri                   5

Indianapolis             5

All veterans are eligible in other collaborative courts, such as drug court, homeless court, and mental health court. Combat veterans court survives despite the fact the law no longer limits veterans courts to combat veterans, quite simply because the system works.

State penal codes permit courts to specially handle any veteran who was a member of the military forces and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, substance abuse, military sexual trauma, or psychological problems as a result of that service.

Several judges have programs that center on the specialized needs of combat veterans. Families have observed that each time their soldier returns from a deployment, their problems are worse. They demonstrate more and more hopelessness and disillusionment. The judge accepts those who had no problems during school and no contacts with the criminal justice system before joining the military.

A collaborative team decides which veterans will be admitted to veteran’s court. The court does not see a typical array of career criminals in combat veterans court – because the team selects those who demonstrate a commitment to reform themselves as soon as possible. Three simple rules must be followed: 1) The veterans must be honest, 2) show up, and 3) try hard. It is a four-phase, highly structured program lasting a minimum of 18 months. While the veteran must plead guilty to the charges at the outset, upon successful completion, many walk away without a criminal record.

Before a court session begins, numerous professionals meet in a room behind the courtroom. The group includes the judge, two probation officers, a deputy district attorney, a public defender, a Veterans Administration representative, a liaison between the court and the VA, two representatives from the county mental health agency, and sometimes an army captain who works as a judge advocate, assisting veterans boggled down with noncriminal disputes. The team decides which defendants will be accepted into the program and discusses each vet scheduled to appear in veteran’s court that day.

The judge still has the final say, but it is the team, not just the judge, that makes almost all the decisions. A judge is concerned about letting the team down in deviating from the collaborative team’s decision. However, the judge has the final say and may override the team’s decision.

Mentors try to be in court when their veteran mentees appear. Between court dates, each relationship just depends on the two individuals. Some communicate once a week by telephone. Others send e-mails or text messages. Some occasionally meet for lunch or coffee with their mentees. There appears to be a correlation between what happens in court with how much the mentee seems to lean on the mentor.

Estimates indicate that, as of 2012, the U.S. veterans’ population was 23,442,000 (National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics). Of those, 84,000 have already been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD (Maimon, 2008). This does not account for the numbers of veterans with PTSD or other serious mental-health problems that remain undiagnosed. Research indicated that the actual number of veterans with PTSD or major depression is around 300,000 (Maimon, 2008). In regard to substance abuse, research indicates that in 2010 alone, 256,000 veterans needed treatment for illicit drug use; however, a mere 20% of those veterans had received treatment (Office of Applied Studies). In addition, many of these veterans are facing other issues that further compound the problem, including unemployment, strained relationships, and homelessness (Tanielian and Jaycox, 2008). Either because of, or in addition to, these untreated diseases and compounded social issues; more and more veterans are processed through the criminal-justice system.

Conservative estimates are that veterans currently make up about 12% of individuals in prisons and jails, and the 2010 Bureau of Justice Statistics report (cited in Department of Veterans Affairs, 2006) indicates significant rates of mental illness, substance abuse, and homelessness among veterans in the criminal-justice system. The first veteran’s court in Buffalo was a response to the growing number of veterans appearing on their mental-health and drug-treatment-court dockets.

As the mentoring model grows it would behoove the courts and its constituents to share notes on best practices in training and utilizing mentors. What about other programs available to assist veterans?

Business Training and Mentoring are two areas that are sorely missing from the line up of services offered to the veterans that are enrolled into the program. GO*VETS Foundation is a 501c3 not for profit organization established to offer these types of services. The primary services of GO*VETS are to offer training in Entrepreneurship and Leadership for Business; and also assist veterans in polishing their image to be ready to be re-employed in the civilian world. The veterans enter the program and go through a series of online distance learning modules; in person bootcamps and workshops; and a six-month mentoring program. (www.govetsfoundation.org)

I believe we need to add more areas of common sense practices to help our veterans lead a normal and healthy life – and business training is the ticket! I’m very glad that the Veterans Court has expanded into so many states over the past six years, with hopes that additional services can be offered to our veterans.

email: brian@brianhazelgren.com

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