Create specialized courts for veterans suffering substance abuse and mental health issues. These courts would provide qualifying veterans with treatment and rehabilitation as opposed to standard incarceration.
While veterans account for only 8 percent of the total national population, they account for 10 percent of people with criminal records. In total, 20-50 percent of today’s veterans suffer from mental health issues, but only 50 percent seek treatment.
In addition, the supports they receive are often inadequate. In many cases, once you leave the military service, “you’re on your own,” says Todd Jermstad, head of adult probation for Bell County, Texas, which includes the Fort Hood military base. Reflecting on his experience, Jermstad remembers seeing some “seriously troubled individuals,” and was saddened by their struggles and by the fact that their combat-related behaviors were overwhelming a justice system largely unequipped to deal with the toxic combination of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI), substance abuse, and violence.
Untreated or improperly treated PTSD or TBI can lead to heightened anxiety and stress; sufferers sometimes undergo dramatic personality changes and may commit violent acts. Moreover, our country’s 131,000 homeless veterans, who account for 20-25 percent of the homeless population, are likely to be cited for offenses such as sleeping in public.
Finally, many veterans are trained to use violence to respond to high-pressure situations and have problems readjusting to the non-violent norms of civilian life.
The first veterans’ court was created in 2008 by Judge Robert Russell of Buffalo, New York, who recognized that jails were neither the most meaningful nor the most effective institutions to deal with non-violent veteran offenders. Russell created the Buffalo Veterans’ Treatment Court based on the specialized “problem-solving” court models often used for offenders with problems such as substance abuse and mental health diagnoses.
Since that time, veterans’ courts have continued to evolve. For example, courts such as the one in Santa Ana, California, now hear cases involving violent offenders as well as non-violent offenders. And some Texas courts are preparing to hear cases from dishonorably discharged veterans as well as honorably discharged, as long as their behavior was triggered by combat-related distress.
Jermstad notes that the Texas veterans’ courts have fostered unprecedented cooperation between the courts and the Veterans Administration. The courts expedite veterans’ VA proceedings; the VA, in turn, sends liaisons to the courts to deal directly with rehabilitating justice-connected veterans.
Early statistics from veterans’ courts have been promising. For example, the Buffalo court had enrolled 120 veterans in rehabilitation, training, and mentorship programs by mid-2011. Among those who had completed the program, the recidivism rate was zero.
What States are Doing
By late 2010, there were about 40 veterans’ courts across the country, some created through state legislation. Other states accomplished goals similar to those of veterans’ courts by advocating for rehabilitation and treatment programs for justice-involved veterans.
Minnesota passed the first state legislation encouraging “treatment over incarceration” for justice-connected veterans with “psychological injuries” in 2008. Minnesota veterans are now entitled to receive VA treatment options as part of their sentences. Brockton Hunter, a Minnesota attorney, military veteran, and veterans’ court expert, says Minnesota recognizes “that treatment and probation are often more effective than conviction and incarceration in getting to the root of a veteran’s problem and ensuring public safety.”
Hunter notes in his brief on the issue that “Veterans Court is not a ‘get out of jail free’ card for veterans. Participants must take responsibility for themselves, successfully complete all recommended treatment, and submit to intensive supervision to ensure they stay on track.”
The U.S. Supreme Court sanctioned Minnesota’s veteran sentencing law in 2009 in Porter v. McCollum, a case in which the court reversed a Korean War veteran’s death sentence because his war service and subsequent psychological injuries were not taken into account at trial.
Minnesota currently operates two veterans’ courts (Hennepin County and Ramsey County) and a third was in planning stages in late 2011.
Illinois followed Minnesota’s lead in 2010. Illinois’ Veterans and Servicemembers Court Treatment Act allows counties to create special judicial courts for veterans and active duty personnel suffering from mental health conditions and or substance abuse. If a veteran qualifies for the Veterans and Servicemembers Court Program, his or her attorney must petition the courts for a separate trial in a veterans’ court. However, some veterans are ineligible for the special courts, including:
Those charged with violent crimes in the past 10 years (excluding crimes committed during incarceration)
Those who falsely deny drug addiction
Those who are unwilling to participate
The court uses a broad range of treatment programs, rewards, and sanctions. These include fines; court costs; restitution; public service employment; incarceration; individual and group therapy; drug testing; close court monitoring; and educational and career counseling. Mental health treatment is mandatory. If treatment is successful, and veterans cooperate, criminal charges may ultimately be dismissed if recommended after an evaluation. The court can use the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs resources and their Veteran Justice Outreach Specialists to report on the defendant’s progress.
Illinois State Representative Mike Tryon became a champion for veterans’ courts when approached by a local veterans’ group. Tyron introduced legislation in 2009 authorizing a Military and Veterans Court Task Force. The task force, working with Southern Illinois University, produced a brief with detailed recommendations on funding, eligibility, and jurisdiction issues, laying the groundwork for the new courts.
Tryon points out that they offer a perfect example of states being proactive in linking federal, state, and local resources to serve a vulnerable population and curb, or even resolve, a potential problem before it escalates.
And, at a time when all state budgets are tight, Tryon noted that no new funds were required for veterans’ courts. Illinois, like many other states, already had funds designated for specialized courts, including juvenile courts and family courts.
California’s legislature amended the state penal code to allow courts to sentence veterans to treatment instead of jail time or fines after the courts hold special hearings to determine whether PTSD was a factor in the crimes. Any veteran who has served in a combat zone and developed psychological problems or substance abuse issues related to that combat service is eligible for such treatment. Judge Wendy Lindley presides over Orange County Superior Court, which features one of California’s most prominent veterans’ courts, using such treatment procedures.
In Nevada, cases may be transferred to local district specialty courts for the purposes of assigning offenders to treatment programs if they are veterans proven to be suffering from psychological wounds of war and substance abuse. Then-assemblywoman Barbara E. Buckley, who proposed the bill with District Judge Jennifer Elliot, gave compelling testimony in support of the legislation.
Texas authorizes county court commissioners to establish veterans’ court programs. These courts must have certain “essential characteristics.” They must serve “persons who are veterans or current members of the United States armed forces, who have a certain mental illness, and who are arrested for or charged with any misdemeanor or felony offense.” If the defendant successfully undergoes a treatment program and the court determines dismissal of charges is in the best interest of justice, the charges may legally be dismissed. The courts, which now operate in eight counties, are overseen by a committee assigned by the Lieutenant Governor and the Speaker of the House of Representatives and receive funds from the Texas Veterans Commission and the Criminal Justice Division of the governor's office to cover costs. Counties such Travis County are operating these courts with bipartisan political support.
What the Federal Government is Doing
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) began the Veterans Justice Outreach Initiative (VJO) to avoid “unnecessary” criminalization of veterans’ mental illness and the resulting incarceration that too often occurs. VJO seeks to accomplish this goal by ensuring that eligible justice-involved veterans have timely access to VA mental health and substance abuse services.
VJO advocates for justice-focused activity at the medical center level. VA medical centers are encouraged to develop working relationships with court systems and local law enforcement officials. Additionally, the VA must now provide outreach to justice-involved veterans in the communities in which they serve.
Finally, each VA medical center has been asked to designate a facility-based VJO specialist. Specialists will be responsible for outreach, assessment, and case management at a local level for justice-involved veterans.
Program Manager, Health Care for Reentry Veterans
310-478-3711 ext. firstname.lastname@example.org
States looking for assistance in starting their own veteran courts can take advantage of resources made available through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration’s veteran justice webpage
Justice for Vets
: The National Clearinghouse for Veterans Treatment Courts provides updated news regarding veterans’ courts across the country.