The Need for Veterans Treatment Courts

Why Support Veterans Treatment Courts?

The first veteran’s treatment court was established in 2008 by Judge Robert T. Russell of the Erie County Court in Buffalo, NY.  In 2009, Judge Russell described why he saw a need for veterans treatment courts, which are essentially modeled on successful drug courts created to treat individuals suffering from addiction:

“Many veterans are known to have a warrior’s mentality and often do not address their treatment needs for physical and psychological health care. Many are homeless, unemployed, helpless, and in despair, suffering from alcohol or drug addiction, and others from serious mental illnesses. Their lives have been spiraling out of control…The first veterans court in Buffalo was a response to the growing number of veterans appearing on their mental-health and drug-treatment-court dockets.  It became apparent that these traditional treatment courts were limited in fully serving the veteran population.”

Most veterans are strengthened by their military service, but the combat experience has left a growing number of veterans with a mental health disorder or cognitive impairment. One in five Iraq and Afghanistan Marine and Army war veterans has symptoms. And research continues to draw a link between substance abuse and combat–related mental illness. One in six veterans who served in Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and Operation Iraqi Freedom suffers from a substance abuse issue. Left untreated, mental health disorders common among veterans can directly lead to involvement in the criminal justice system.

The veterans treatment court model requires regular court appearances; a bi-weekly minimum in the early phases of the San Diego program is one example. The veterans treatment court model also requires mandatory attendance at treatment sessions and frequent and random testing for substance use, both for drugs and alcohol.  Given their past experiences in the armed forces, veterans respond favorably to this structured environment.  Without structure and adherence to a treatment plan that addresses the underlying cause of their behavior, these veterans will very likely reoffend and remain in the criminal justice system. Community safety will be jeopardized by future crime and victims.  Suicide risk during this untreated cycle is occurring at record levels in Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. The veterans treatment court is designed to stop this cycle, restore the veteran to their previous law abiding status and ensure they meet their obligations to themselves, the court, and their communities.

Communities are also strengthened and resources saved by having veteran-defendants in treatment combined into a single cohort while their probation is managed by a knowledgeable team of specialists.  Because a veterans treatment court judge handles numerous veterans' cases and is supported by a strong, interdisciplinary team, he or she is in a much better position to exercise discretion and respond more effectively than a judge who only occasionally hears a case involving a veteran-defendant.  A veterans treatment court judge and court support team understand the issues that a veteran may be struggling with, such as Post-Traumatic Stress, Traumatic Brain Injury, and Military Sexual Trauma.  A veterans treatment court judge is also more familiar with the Veterans Health Administration, Veterans Benefits Administration, State Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Service Organizations, and volunteer veteran-mentors, and how each can assist veterans before the court.

Veterans treatment courts are tapping into the unique aspects of military and veteran culture and using it to the benefit of the veteran.  Through these unique courts, those who served in our nation’s Armed Forces are allowed to participate in a treatment court process with their fellow veterans, re-instilling a sense of camaraderie that they felt while in the military. Indeed, the veterans treatment court is similar to the military unit: the judge becomes the commanding officer, the veteran-mentors become fire team leaders, the court team becomes the company staff, and the veteran-defendants become the troops.  For those who have spent any time in traditional criminal courts, a visit to a veterans treatment court is somewhat of a revelation.  Veteran defendants are standing before the judge at parade rest, saying “Yes, ma’am/sir” or “No, ma’am/sir,” and there is interaction with and support from their fellow veterans. 

Veterans treatment courts act as a “one-stop shop,” linking veterans with the programs, benefits and services they have earned. For example, the VA Veterans Justice Outreach Specialist, or VJO, is present during the court docket and able to access confidential medical records, make treatment appointments, and communicate this information to the court.  Treatment providers on the court team are present to provide information on the veterans’ progress in treatment.  Specially trained community resource specialists familiar with organizations that provide support in court programs, treatment and employment resources help restore the veteran to wholeness and provide accountability.  The Veterans Benefits Administration may participate to ensure that veterans receive disability compensation, and education and training benefits. Veterans service organizations and State Departments of Veterans Affairs assist veterans with additional local and state resources, while volunteer veteran-mentors provide morale and motivational support.  These team members are not employed by the criminal justice system and normally would not be present at the courthouse.  Consolidating justice-involved veterans onto a single docket permits these individuals to actively support those in need of their help.