Veterans Courts

The VA and justice system team up to rehabilitate veterans across the nation.

Since the Revolutionary War, brave men and women have raised their right hands and taken an oath to protect and defend their country—often at great personal expense. DAV knows the cost of commitment to one’s country and how veterans face great odds as they try to regain a sense of normalcy after injury.

In the past few years, the public has begun to recognize what the veterans’ community has known for a while—that physical wounds are not the only injuries from service. Mental and emotional illnesses are invisible scars of battle that also inflict damage. Even with the recent focus on increased understanding of mental health issues, these illnesses are not always identified and diagnosed until much later on.

Veterans courts serve veterans facing judicial action due to substance abuse, mental illness or trauma. These specialized courts strive to keep veterans out of jail and connect them to the benefits and treatment they have earned, all while saving the American public tax dollars.

“DAV fights to help veterans with all illnesses and injuries—visible or not,” said Washington Headquarters Executive Director Garry Augustine. “These specialized courts rehabilitate veterans and ensure they receive the services they have earned to help them on their road to recovery.”

A study by the RAND Corp. estimates 25 percent to 30 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have reported symptoms of a mental disorder or cognitive condition, but only half seek treatment. The study attributes the increasing numbers to multiple deployments and extended tours during the two conflicts.

The study recognized that post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and traumatic brain injury are some of the most common post-combat illnesses diagnosed in veterans. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports 1 in 6 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from substance abuse, which is often linked to combat-related mental illness.

A Government Accountability Office report concluded that due to stigma, lack of understanding of mental health care, logistical challenges and concerns about the VA, many veterans do not seek treatment for mental health. These are all issues the VA has recognized and works to address. Additionally, some may not realize they require health care. The same report indicated that from fiscal years 2006 through 2010, the number of veterans requiring mental health care increased steadily.

During that period Robert Russell, a judge in Buffalo, N.Y., noticed a steady rise in veterans appearing in his Drug Court and Mental Health Court.

Russell recognized that more could be done to connect veterans to the benefits and services they earned, so he joined forces with the local VA medical center to create a new court docket that would focus exclusively on veterans in the justice system.

In 2008, Russell founded the first veterans court. Now there are more than 100 courts serving veterans across the nation, and countless more are in the planning stages.

The veterans’ court models vary throughout the country, but they all include a judge who is knowledgeable about the VA and well-versed in veterans’ issues, benefits and treatment. In addition, representatives from VBA are often present in the courtrooms to provide medical records and other documentation to assist the judge in determining treatment options.

“In order to make a veterans court successful, partnerships are essential,” said Augustine. “Many times, district attorneys and public defenders are involved, as well as the VA and volunteer mentors. Veterans courts illustrate that collaborative efforts help veterans get back on their feet.”

The courts revolve around treatment versus incarceration, allowing veterans facing criminal charges to learn life skills and participate in mental health and drug and alcohol treatment. The treatments occur in a group setting with fellow veterans, encouraging them to find the same camaraderie in recovery as they did in the military. To qualify for this option, veterans must have been diagnosed with a mental health illness and have not been charged with violent or sex crimes.

“The veterans court system recognizes that the transition from service member to civilian can be very difficult,” said Augustine. “Treatment for mental illness incurred in military service rehabilitates veterans. The programs have proven to be more cost-effective than incarceration and are successful in keeping veterans from becoming repeat offenders.”

The nonprofit organization Justice for Vets has created a nationwide network of veterans courts that are transforming the way former service members are handled in the criminal justice system.

To learn more about the veterans court system, visit their website at http://justiceforvets.org.