Special Courts for Veterans Address Special Needs

There is a mental health crisis amongst America’s veterans. There are at least 22 suicides by veterans every single day. A study of returning soldiers identified 20 percent of active and 42 percent of reserve component soldiers as requiring mental health treatment. Drug or alcohol use accompanied the mental health problems in 30 percent of the Army’s suicide deaths from 2003 to 2009; and was involved in more than 45 percent of non-fatal suicide attempts from 2005 to 2009. There is a link between substance abuse and combat related mental illness which left untreated often leads to involvement in the criminal justice system.

In an effort to address the mental health crisis amongst our heroes, federal and local governments are taking multi-disciplinary approaches including last year’s creation of an Interagency Task Force on Military and Veterans Mental Health and the expansion of veterans courts.

In 2008 there were only five veteran’s courts but now there are at least 130. According to a recent Washington Post article, veterans’ court programs oversee criminal cases involving military veterans who were arrested at least partly because of an addiction or mental illness, most commonly depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The idea is that the offenders need treatment rather than jail time.

The veterans’ courts are unique in that they approach the veterans with offers of help in the form of treatment and support for dealing with the causes of what lead them there as opposed to the usual punishment meted out in criminal courts. This does not mean the programs are easy. While participation is voluntary, they require veterans to confront their demons through structure in the form of therapy, drug testing, participation in 12 step programs, and regular check-ins and support from various interested parties. In addition, Veterans Treatment Courts link veterans with the programs, benefits, and services they have earned but may not have been seeking because they were distracted by their problems. This includes disability compensation, education and training benefits, and even local  social services.

This holistic approach to treating veterans has produced admirable results. About two-thirds of those who get involved in the veterans court graduate and the recidivism rate is just 3 percent. While this statistic is not current, the Bureau of Justice Statistics noted that 67.5 percent of prisoners released in 1994 were rearrested within 3 years. Based on the success of the holistic approach offered by veterans courts perhaps it is worth considering this kind of holistic approach in more criminal courts if we are truly serious about taking a bite out of crime.