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Veterans Courts Spread Across the Nation  

On May 30, the nation’s largest gathering of veterans’ treatment court professionals kicks off in Nashville, Tenn. A part of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) annual conference, the Veterans Treatment Court Summit will help feed a growing movement that has seen the development of more than 80 specialized courts in a few short years.

The spread of veterans’ treatment courts is driven by a growing awareness of the mental health and substance abuse challenges faced by service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. However, says Matt Stiner, director of development and outreach with Justice For Vets, a division of NADCP dedicated to promoting veterans treatment courts, the courts serve a much larger population of current and former service members who have served over the past several decades. 

More than 22 million veterans currently live in the U.S., with the largest group (almost 8 million) having served during the Vietnam era. It can be hard to pin down exactly how many veterans are incarcerated–current estimates are that veterans are incarcerated at lower rates than the general population—but some veterans do face a set of challenges that increases their risk of arrest.  Homelessness, unemployment and mental health and addictions problems experienced by many veterans can lead to arrest. In 2010, an estimated 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were identified as having from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or major depression, and 6,570 veterans die by suicide every year.   

Making this situation worse is that not all veterans who are eligible for benefits like mental health and addictions treatment, disability payments and medical care are not signed up for services. Stiner says, “The military is a macho environment which instills veterans with a warrior mentality making it difficult for many to ask for help if they need it.  On top of that many returning service members are not aware of the many benefits and services that are available."

How Courts Work

Veterans’ treatment courts follow the model pioneered by drug courts and mental health courts. Veterans may be arrested for a variety of offenses, booked into jail and assigned a public defender. It is typically the attorney who refers the veteran to the court. Stiner says it’s vital for either law enforcement or the jail to ask detainees whether they have served in the military or are currently serving. Stiner says, “Many returning service members do not identify themselves as veterans, but will acknowledge they served.”

The courts serve veterans with mental health and substance abuse conditions, but courts vary on whether they accept individuals with violent felony charges. Justice for Vets strongly advocates that courts make decisions case-by-case. According to Stiner, after multiple tours in a combat zone, some veterans feel like they should always carry a weapon. Without careful consideration, such charges could summarily exclude a veteran from the court.  Stiner says it’s important to put the charges in context: “A felony gun charge can be a vet having a gun in the glove box during a traffic stop.”

Even a charge such as assault and battery should be considered, says Stiner. A forensic psychiatrist can assess whether the charges are related to PTSD, a traumatic brain injury or another condition. Combat experience can be particularly traumatic, says Stiner. “Some veterans struggle after serving in a combat zone. Killing and watching your friends die can be a very traumatic event.”

Once the veteran enters the court, the court team immediately assesses him or her for eligibility for a variety of services, including disability payments, veterans’ health care, mental health and substance abuse counseling and education and training services.

Each court participant is also assigned a volunteer mentor, another veteran who may be from a local veterans service organization, law enforcement, chamber of commerce or the broader community. Mentors are trained to support the veteran through the court process.

This array of support, as well as regular meetings with the judge and other court participants, provides veterans with a structure and discipline that makes the court successful.

The Role of Partnerships

Local partnerships are key to the success of veterans’ courts. The courts work closely with the Veterans Health Administration, the Veterans Benefits Administration, state veterans agencies, criminal justice partners, veterans service organizations, community organizations and private providers to ensure that veterans are identified for participation in the court and have comprehensive plans in place to address mental health and substance abuse conditions. Services and supports, particularly veteran mentors, come from the entire community.

Stiner says that like police crisis intervention teams (CIT), veterans’ courts can get started with the initiative of one dedicated individual or group. Existing partnerships, such as a CIT task force, can be a starting point for bringing in a veterans court.