Veterans Treatment Courts: Leaving No Veterans Behind


By Melissa Fitzgerald, senior director, Justice for Vets

In 2007, a Buffalo, NY judge named Robert Russell began seeing an increase in the number of veterans appearing on his Drug Court and Mental Health Court dockets. Many were battling severe mental health issues, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and physical issues such as Traumatic Brian Injury. These conditions were often exacerbated by substance abuse; in other cases substance abuse was the primary concern.

JusticeforVetsOne day during his Mental Health Court docket, Judge Russell called the case of a Vietnam veteran who to that point was completely unresponsive. He would show up to court, but wouldn’t participate in counseling, and he wouldn’t communicate with the court team. So Judge Russell asked two members of his court staff, themselves Vietnam veterans, to take the gentleman out in the hall and talk to him vet to vet. They talked for an hour and when they were finished, Judge Russell recalled the case. The man walked up to the bench, stood at parade rest, and held his head high. Judge Russell asked him if he was ready to accept the treatment that was being offered. The man looked Judge Russell in the eye and said, “yes sir.”

At that moment Judge Russell decided to take action. He and his team immediately set out to create a veterans-only docket where veterans were surrounded by their peers and offered treatment and services specific to their needs. While maintaining the traditional partnerships and practices found in his Drug Court, Judge Russell brought to the table U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs health care networks, the Veterans Benefits Administration, volunteer veteran mentors from the community and veterans' family support organizations. In early 2008, Judge Russell launched the nation’s first Veterans Treatment Court, igniting a spark that has blazed across the country and fundamentally changed the way veterans are handled in the criminal justice system.

Surprisingly little is known about the intersection of veterans and the justice system. In 2007, the last year national statistics were released, the Department of Justice found 703,000 veterans under correctional supervision. Ask any judge, however, and they will tell you that they see veterans coming through the courts in desperate need of treatment. Unless we intercept them at the key moments of crisis, we may not have another opportunity.  In March 2014, the Washington Post reported that more than half of the 2.6 million Americans dispatched to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan struggle with physical or mental health problems stemming from their service, feel disconnected from civilian life and believe the government is failing to meet the needs of this generation’s veterans. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that 1 in 6 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are alcohol and/or drug addicted and 1 in 5 suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress or significant mental anguish.

Since Judge Russell launched his program in 2008, Veterans Treatment Courts have gained national prominence as the most innovative solution for veterans caught up in the criminal justice system. The number of Veterans Treatment Courts increased by 28% between 2013 and 2014, and there are 264 operating in 37 states and one U.S. territory (Guam). These programs stand between the veteran and a felony conviction, incarceration, or worse; they ensure that when returning service members are arrested because of a substance abuse and/or mental health disorder, they receive the structure, treatment and mentoring they need to get their lives back on track.

Today, there are 13,200 veterans receiving life-saving treatment in Veterans Treatment Court.

In February, the Community Mental Health Journal released the first published study on Veterans Treatment Court finding that veterans participating in these programs experienced significant improvement with depression, PTSD and substance abuse as well as with critical social issues including housing, emotional well-being, relationships and overall functioning. The study also found that mentoring from volunteer veterans is particularly effective. Veterans who receive mentoring not only experience better clinical outcomes, they report feeling more socially connected.

At Justice For Vets, we lead the national effort to establish Veterans Treatment Courts within reach of every veteran in need, provide ongoing training and technical assistance to the VTC field, shape public opinion through aggressive media outreach, advocate for state and federal legislation, and annually host Vet Court Con, the nation’s only training conference dedicated to justice-involved veterans. We also understand that there are few bonds as strong as the one between those who have served their country, and we are building a National Mentor Corps of volunteer veterans to serve in Veterans Treatment Courts. We do all of this because we know that while the vast majority of veterans are strengthened by their military service, not everyone’s journey home is the same. Those who do struggle on the home front and become involved in the criminal justice system can find hope and healing in a Veterans Treatment Court, where they are given the opportunity to fight for their freedom, freedom from addiction and mental anguish, freedom from homelessness, and freedom from unemployment. Veterans fought for our freedom; join us in fighting for theirs.

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