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Veterans Treatment Courts: A Crucial Reintegration Strategy

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For returning troops suffering from mental health and substance use issues, accessing proper treatment is an immense challenge -- 47% of veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or major depression do not seek care, and half of those who do seek care receive minimally adequate services. As a result of this lack of treatment, many veterans with mental health and substance use issues end up involved with the criminal justice system.

With close to 2 million Americans serving in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our legal system must devise new ways to cope with the veterans involved with the criminal justice system for nonviolent offenses due to mental health and substance use issues related to their service.

One promising solution is the greater use of veterans treatment courts for nonviolent offenders.

Veterans treatment courts are fairly new endeavors and have gained attention as a viable solution in recent years. In fact, the first veterans court -- founded in Buffalo, New York in January 2008 -- is already showing promising results.

Ten communities nationwide utilize veterans treatment courts and three states -- Illinois, Nevada, and Texas -- have recently passed laws to encourage their adoption. There is even a push to secure federal funding for these courts. Yet, while momentum builds to expand veterans courts nationwide, key issues regarding these courts need to be addressed.

The first is concern over the legal precedent veterans courts may establish. While specialty courts have been around since the 1980s, their focus has been on specific crimes (drug use and addiction), or health issues (mental illnesses or disabilities) that can be better addressed through proven treatment methods and programs rather than incarceration. Veterans courts, with their focus on a specific population, wade into a murkier legal area.

The American Civil Liberties Union has been at the forefront of this debate, raising important questions about the constitutionality of these courts, and whether they will create a separate system of justice for one segment of the population. While there is legitimate concern that a separate system may lead to greater leniency, veterans treatment courts are not separate court systems; rather, they are typically embedded within existing drug and mental health courts.

Leniency or a separate standard of justice is not the intention or goal of these courts. Rather, like the drug or mental health courts that came before them, veterans courts hone in on a specific set of issues related to a person's military service, and provide access to treatment in lieu of incarceration. Incarceration does not solve -- and often compounds -- their issues, and can lead to high rates of recidivism and chronic behavioral health issues.

This raises a second issue -- how do we ensure that rehabilitation programs instituted and utilized through veterans courts are effective?

The Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court provides veterans who have been found guilty of nonviolent felonies or misdemeanor offenses with access to treatment in their communities through the VA or other providers, and access to social supports, including pairing them with 35 volunteer veteran mentors. Over a set period of time -- between 18 months to two years -- these veterans must follow a strict schedule that includes rehabilitation programs and court appearances. To date, 120 veterans are enrolled in the program. Among the first group of enrollees, 90%, successfully completed the program, and there is a zero recidivism rate among these graduates.

The court expects more veterans to complete its intervention programs by the end of the year and is beginning a process to evaluate its effectiveness. The court plans to determine the key aspects of the program that have led to its early success and share this information with court systems throughout the state and nation looking to create their own veterans treatment courts. This analysis is key, not only to the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court's continued efforts, but also to expanding these courts throughout the country.

Veterans treatment courts hold great promise for helping veterans -- who as a result of inadequately treated mental health and substance use issues have committed nonviolent crimes -- return to society and lead healthy, productive lives. The courts should not be viewed as creating a separate system for a specific population, but as ensuring that our current system is inclusive of the specific needs of our bravest citizens.