Serving is like no other life, say soldiers, and trying to get back into civilian life after serving is often challenging. Sometimes so challenging that good soldiers falter. When they do, increasingly, courts are turning to Veterans Treatment Courts to help veterans turn their lives around within the justice system. Giving a helping hand, instead of handcuffs, may be better for everyone, Veterans Court advocates say, veterans and society included. But how many helping hands should a veteran receive before being treated like others caught in the criminal justice system?
A recent Associated Press story out of Philadelphia shows how Veterans Courts differ from typical court settings. As two veterans wait for the judge to arrive, one there for assault charges, another for drug and theft charges, they are approached by volunteer veteran mentors who offer help. Do they need help getting their resume together, with their job search? Do they need help getting into community college? Would they like to join a group of vets for long-distance runs or fitness classes? A Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Veterans Justice Outreach Specialist (VJO) from the VA Health Care Network approaches and asks if they need help with doctors’ appointments, filing for disability benefits or housing vouchers?
The judge, an Army Reserve captain who served in both recent wars, has run the Veterans Treatment Court in Phily since its inception five years ago and promises to give vets a second chance — or a third, if they need it. Of the 166 Veterans Treatment Courts across the nation, the VA lists 7,724 veterans who passed through up through December, 2012. Half of those are still in treatment, but of those who have graduated, two thirds successful stayed out of jail and began to rebuild their lives. The rest quit, transferred to the regular court system, died or became too ill to continue.
As Veterans Treatment Courts expand across the country, they take key ideas from Drug and Mental Health Courts to see beyond the specific crime to the circumstances or conditions that may have led to the crime. Vets with post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) often self medicate with alcohol, drugs or suffer from serious mental health disorders.
The Veterans Treatment Court was modeled after Drug Courts, an innovative program developed in Dade County, Florida that traded prison time for strict recovery interventions. Judges granted drug users the resources to become clean including mental health and support services. Over the long run, research found that treatment was more cost effective for the government and more effective for the defendant than adding another inmate to the prison system.
The first Veterans Treatment Court Convention will be held later this year, in December, and will feature another first. Veteran Mentor Corps Bootcamp will be a two-day training for veterans willing to become mentors to fellow vets in trouble. Early bird registration ends October 11, 2013.
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