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Finding Options for Returning Veterans

Finding Options for Returning Veterans

With today’s high incidence among combat veterans of post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, alcohol and drug abuse, depression, and other mental health issues, our soldiers are at great risk of becoming involved in the justice system upon returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. While ideally mental health issues should be addressed before traumatized veterans run afoul of the law, coming up with solutions that meet the needs of both society and veterans who do become justice-involved is critical. The Veterans Treatment Court (VTC) model is one innovative mechanism currently being used to do this, as part of a continuum of services designed to assist troubled veterans.

Why can’t we just solve problems before they start?

As a result of the significant physical and emotional challenges facing returning combat veterans, they often have problems readjusting to mainstream society, with family, relationship, and career issues. Compounding the problem, especially among young veterans, is a tendency to resist receiving help. Veterans might be wary of authority, they might feel shame, or they might simply want to avoid facing their problems. And currently available services may not be meeting the needs of all veterans. Sadly, they often encounter the criminal justice system before receiving the treatment and services they need. Veterans Treatment Courts can better address the issues of many veterans who have become justice-involved than traditional court processing.  As part of a continuum of services and initiatives (including such programs as first responder training to reduce arrests and diversion to treatment), they can help keep those veterans who have paid a high price with their physical and mental health from also paying the price of losing their freedom to prison or jail.

Veterans Courts: a Unique Type of Mental Health Court

Society is better served by treating the underlying mental health problems of people rather than just cycling them through our jails and prisons. Mental health courts, through which defendants with mental health issues are sent to treatment, therapy, and housing instead of to jail, have become a recognized component of our criminal justice system. Traumatized veterans deserve the same treatment that society gives to other defendants with mental health problems, with an approach unique to the veteran experience.

Like other mental health courts, a VTC is an alternative sentencing court wherein all the resources appropriate for the treatment of traumatized veterans gather collaboratively to serve the special needs of each defendant, while holding them accountable for the harm they’ve caused. Originating in Buffalo, New York, in 2008, today there are over 60 VTCs in the U.S.A.

Why not just refer veterans to existing mental health courts? The reason is that Veterans Treatment Courts are comprised of experts in assisting veterans, such as county Veterans Service Officers, veteran-specific housing providers, and veteran peer-mentoring groups. Most importantly, the VTC team includes a social worker from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) called a Veterans Justice Outreach specialist, who evaluates justice-involved veterans and links them to appropriate VA treatment and services.

An unfortunate characteristic of veterans with post-traumatic stress is the tendency to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism. So VTC protocols include drug/alcohol therapy. The co-occurrence of substance abuse and post-traumatic stress is common among VTC participants. Fortunately, the VA has developed unique and effective therapies for treating these co-occurring disorders.

The benefits of VTCs are significant

Initial data from existing VTCs show remarkably low rates of recidivism, ranging from zero to 15%.  Judges I have observed have worked hard to keep veterans from failing out of the court. So VTCs are beginning to demonstrate that once veterans’ underlying mental health problems are addressed, they are significantly less likely to reoffend. In addition, when the likely traditional court result would have been incarceration, taxpayers save the considerable cost of jail or prison, with only small incremental court costs and modest housing costs (totaling half the cost of incarceration). And since the federally-funded VA provides most of the treatment and mental health care for a VTC, local and state governments save again.

Helping Veterans Overcome the Stigma of a Criminal Record

In a typical VTC, the defendant enters a guilty plea via plea bargaining, and upon graduation either the charges are dismissed or the record expunged. But this model can in fact, stand to be improved, particularly by finding ways to divert the veteran from the justice system altogether, or to at least reducing the likelihood that they will face the many collateral consequences of having a conviction on their record.

Pre-plea diversion. A pre-plea model is one wherein the defendant is required to attend rehabilitation and/or therapy in lieu of adjudication of the charges. This model is more efficient in that the defendant goes to rehab/therapy soon, with minimal court expenses and less time in jail. Also, since no guilty finding is entered, if successful in completing the court’s requirements, the defendant avoids the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction.  This is a huge benefit to veterans, who often want to pursue careers in law enforcement and other areas where a criminal record precludes employment. And it protects a veteran’s right to still go through a regular court procedure (and possibly be found innocent) if VTC turns out not to be a good fit for him.

Deferred entry of judgment. In this model, the defendant pleads guilty but the judge does not enter a finding into the record, instead retaining the plea for as long as the defendant remains under court supervision. This model helps veterans avoid collateral consequences. Additionally, judges unwilling because of the seriousness of the charges to consider pre-plea diversion may be willing to work with a deferred entry of judgment, as they retain more authority throughout the period the person is under the court’s jurisdiction.

Note that the major incentives of the VTC, dismissal of charges and especially expungement of the record, do not insulate offenders from collateral consequences as much as we might hope. With the imperfect record-keeping of public agencies, earlier guilty findings can often be discovered by data mining experts. Therefore, more needs to be done at the point where a veteran first comes in contact with law enforcement, so they can avoid court involvement altogether.

First responder training. Consider this: A mentally ill person is, through their behavior, brought to the attention of a police officer; rather than arresting the person, the first responder takes the offender to a clinician for evaluation. Such an approach relieves the criminal justice system of one more case and gets the person necessary care expeditiously. Many law enforcement agencies are training their staff to detect signs of mental illness so that they can respond in this fashion. Veterans in particular can benefit since they may react aggressively when confronted by authority, making the situation worse. Some law enforcement agencies even have veterans on staff, trained to defuse such situations.

Historical Imperative

Forty years ago our society ignored the problems of traumatized soldiers returning from the Vietnam War. We must not repeat that mistake. Today’s returning soldiers need and deserve the help of local communities when their mental health problems cause them to act out in ways that lead to their entanglement in the criminal justice system. We must work on advocating toward policies that help to restore a life of dignity and success for our returning heroes.

Ben Gales is a staff attorney at Public Counsel Law Center in Los Angeles focusing on issues affecting military veterans. A Vietnam veteran, Duncan MacVicar works in his retirement on behalf of traumatized veterans caught up in the criminal justice system.

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