Many resources are available, especially on the federal level, to assist veterans with physical or psychological “wounds of war,” but not all wounded veterans know how to access them. Rather than to reach out for help, some veterans may engage in behavior that brings them into the criminal justice system. The Veterans’ Treatment Court helps these veteran defendants address the issues underlying their criminal behavior and links them to available resources.
The first veterans’ treatment court was established in 2008 in Buffalo, NY in order to respond to the unique needs of veterans whose problems, such as mental illness, depression, PTSD, traumatic brain injury, or substance abuse, have led to criminal behavior. The veterans’ treatment court is a hybrid between a drug court and a mental health court.
It uses a treatment problem-solving model rather than a traditional court model to assist veterans whose problems can often be traced to military service. Ohio, whose population of veterans is sixth among the 50 states, now uses veterans’ treatment courts to help deserving veterans who have become criminal defendants.
How Veterans’ Treatment Court Works
Veterans in the criminal justice system are first identified through evidence-based screening and assessments. They may then be referred to the veterans’ treatment court by probation officers, public defenders, defense lawyers or judges. Sometimes a veteran defendant may be referred by a Veterans’ Justice Outreach Specialist (VJO), whose job is to link veteran defendants with Veterans Affairs services. VJOs have now assisted thousands of veterans in veterans’ treatment courts and jails.
Veteran defendants who qualify for veterans’ treatment court can participate in a court-supervised treatment plan with a court-appointed team of specialists. This team may include court staff, pro bono attorneys, probation officers, health care providers and treatment staff. The team’s goal is to help each veteran navigate the system and get necessary help. Veterans’ court teams also collaborate with the Veterans Service Commission and the Veterans Affairs office in each county so that veteran defendants can take advantage of the many resources these federal organizations provide.
Volunteer veterans also provide assistance, often serving as mentors to veteran defendants throughout the course of treatment. Veteran defendants who have successfully completed their treatment plans and have met certain criteria may avoid jail or prison terms or even have their charges dismissed.
Recovery and Healing Is the Goal
The goal of the veterans’ court is not to excuse a veteran defendant’s crime, but to address underlying reasons for the crime in ways that are most likely to prevent repeat criminal behavior. Often, veterans’ treatment courts have a more stringent probationary period than traditional courts. These probationary periods often include random drug and alcohol testing, and veterans who fail to abide by the terms of probation are diverted to a regular court docket.
Ohio currently has at least 28 veterans’ treatment courts and more are being added. Check with your county to see if your judge has started one. Even if your county does not yet have a veterans’ treatment court, judges in every Ohio court have access to a veterans’ justice outreach specialist and can connect a defendant veteran to federal services.
In addition, Ohio has now passed a law that requires every judge to look at a defendant veteran’s military background to consider whether it may be a mitigating factor in sentencing. Although the judge already had the discretion to take military background into account before this law was passed, the new statute helps to raise the court’s awareness that military background can be considered.
Veterans’ Treatment Courts Are Successful
A recent study indicates that they work effectively: Recidivism rates are far below the national average of more than 50 percent. In a Cincinnati study, only 10 percent of those referred to veterans’ courts were rearrested; 21 percent gained full-time employment, 31 percent moved to stable housing, and 16 percent enrolled in school or training programs. In Stark County only five percent were re-arrested on felony charges, and they just graduated their 100th successful veteran participant.
How an Attorney Can Help
If you are a veteran involved in a criminal justice issue, you can hire a criminal defense attorney, or the court will provide you with a court-appointed attorney if you cannot afford one. An attorney is very important to help you understand your rights and possible defenses, or to try to get you into a veterans’ treatment court if your county has one.
If you have accompanying civil legal issues, reach out to your local Legal Aid office or go to OhioLegalHelp.org which will help guide you to the right service or attorney.
If you are a veteran and not in trouble but want to help, reach out to your local veterans’ treatment court and volunteer to be a peer mentor.
Justice Evelyn L. Stratton, retired, has long been a champion of mental health and criminal justice issues. She began advocating for veterans’ treatment courts over 10 years ago, and was appointed to a Veterans’ Administration Commission to help establish veterans’ treatment courts and the VJO programs. She continues to be very active in Veterans’ Treatment Courts and other veterans’ issues since retiring from the Ohio Supreme Court in 2012.
She wrote this column to be published in The Logan Daily News. The views of this column may not necessarily reflect that of the newspaper.
Articles appearing in this column are intended to provide broad, general information about the law. This article is not intended to be legal advice. Before applying this information to a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from a licensed attorney.