Courts designed to help non-violent offenders who have substance abuse or mental health problems have been around for several years. See our blog posts about Mental Illness Case Information from April 2008 and Drug Courts from October 2008. The idea behind these courts is that incarceration is not likely to fix substance abuse or mental illness, but that people with these problems can be successfully treated and kept out of the criminal justice system. Treatment is significantly cheaper than incarceration and has a better chance of reducing recidivism.
Aside from their special focus, these courts don’t use the same adversarial process as regular criminal courts. Instead, all parts of the criminal justice system – the judge, prosecuting attorney, defense attorney, probation officer – work together as a team, along with community mental health and substance abuse treatment providers. These special courts have been expanding because they’ve been successful. They go by different names: Collaborative Courts in California, Accountability Courts in Georgia, or Problem Solving Courts in New York and Wisconsin. They can include adult and juvenile drug courts, DUI courts, and mental health treatment courts; some court systems have only one type, while others have many.
The newest type of problem-solving court is Veterans Court, designed to help returning veterans with substance abuse or mental health problems. Returning veterans – especially those with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury – may develop substance abuse problems as they attempt to re-adjust to civilian life. Returning veterans have high rates of domestic abuse and suicide as well. Since the first session of Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court in Buffalo City Court in 2008, similar courts have been established in many states, including Washington’s Thurston County District Court, Wisconsin’s Rock County Circuit Court, Philadelphia Municipal Court, and Tucson City Court. While all problem-solving court teams include components of the criminal justice system and local service providers, Veterans Court adds Veterans Administration representatives. The V.A. provides counseling, medical evaluation and treatment, and referrals to the full array of V.A. benefits including housing, education, and jobs. In some cases, it can provide peer-to-peer counseling from other veterans.
As with other types of problem-solving courts, candidates must pass a rigorous screening process to determine whether they are likely to benefit. Candidates who are accepted must agree to a strict schedule of court appearances in addition to intensive counseling. In some jurisdictions, successful completion of the program includes getting and keeping a job, or attending school. Length of supervision and treatment varies by court system, the severity of the offense, the severity of the underlying substance abuse or mental health problem, and the veteran’s progress in the program.
Veterans who complete the program and do not re-offend can have the original charges reduced or dismissed. Veterans Courts can reduce the jail population and save taxpayer dollars. Much more importantly, they can help those who have served our country to deal with scars from their experience that may not be physical. Even if they can’t be entirely healed, then can at least be pointed in the right direction: away from jail, and toward treatment.
Keep an eye on CourtReference to see if there’s a Veterans Court near you.