More Courts for Diverting Veterans to Treatment

Therapeutic courts tailored for veterans of the armed forces are now in 29 states, the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash. reported Sept. 19.

Veterans treatment courts are designed to link participants with treatment for substance use and mental health issues, rather than simply repeatedly jailing them for their offenses.

Modeled after drug courts and mental health courts, veterans courts usually serve individuals who commit non-violent crimes. They require participants to engage in treatment and report back to the judge on a regular basis. Those who do not comply face jail time or other sanctions. Those who succeed can get their charges dismissed or reduced.

Unlike traditional treatment courts, veterans courts usually rely on the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide veterans with treatment. According to a National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) brief (PDF), the courts “involve the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs health care networks, the Veterans Benefits Administration, State Departments of Veterans Affairs, volunteer veteran mentors and veterans and veterans family support organizations.”

The courts are popular; the first was founded in 2006, and there are now nearly 50 of them in 29 states. In its Sept. 19 article, the Spokesman-Review reported on a new veterans courts set up in Spokane County, Wash. that serves both veterans and men and women on active duty. A similar court launched recently in Los Angeles, Calif., the L. A. Times reported Sept. 14, and another one will start operating this fall in Clark County, Wash., the Oregonian reported Sept. 10.

Since December 2008, the state of New Jersey has run a program called the Veterans Assistance Project in several counties, which it plans to take statewide, The Record reported Sept. 20. In the project, police officers, judges, and other officials refer veterans to services. However, unlike a veterans court, the project is not a diversion program and no one is court-ordered to participate in treatment.

Why the focus on veterans? According to the Spokesman-Review, vets account for about 10 percent of criminal offenders; approximately 72,000 are incarcerated nationally. The NADCP cites statistics that one in six veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afganistan has a substance abuse problem and about 20 percent have “symptoms of a mental disorder or cognitive impairment.”

Unlike drug courts or mental health courts, veterans courts are unusual in that they use selection criteria that are not solely based on their offense or clinical need. According to the Spokesman Review, some people object to the idea of treating veterans differently than others when it comes to violating the law. Supporters, however, believe that specialized care is appropriate.

“Simply locking people up without considering what’s the most effective way to keep them from offending in the future is a mistake,” said Breean Beggs, a supporter of therapeutic courts formerly associated with Spokane’s Center for Justice. “Simply building new and larger jails has pretty much bankrupted us.”

Beggs also argued that veterans need specialized services. “The psychological wounds of veterans are unique,” he said, “and the intervention is probably unique as well.”

Amy Fairweather of Swords to Ploughshares, a national veterans’ rights group, agreed. By participating in a veterans court, she said, “They can talk to people who share that life-changing and devastating experience.”

The first veterans court was set up in Buffalo, NY by Judge Robert T. Russell Jr. in 2006. Hundreds have graduated from his veterans court. ?None of the graduates has been re-arrested,” he said.

The Veterans Assistance Project in Bergen County, New Jersey has also been quite successful. “So far I haven’t heard of anyone coming back to court,” said Allen Quintavella, criminal division manager in Superior Court in Hackensack.

By comparison, the drug court in Spokane County, Wash., which has operated since 1996 and graduated 475 people, has a recidivism rate of 22 percent.

More information on veterans courts is available from the NADCP National Clearinghouse for Veterans Treatment Courts.

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