On June 12, the Honorable Luis Quinonez led a group of veteran advocates known as the National Veterans Court Alliance, or NVCA, to speak in the White House and on Capitol Hill. A Guatemalan-born American, Vietnam War veteran and business executive, Quinonez was interviewed in December 2016, by president-elect Donald Trump for the position of Department of Veterans Affairs secretary.
But on this day, as the chairman of the NVCA, Quinonez led the discussions with both administration officials and congressional members to support the passage of HR-886, also known as The Veterans Treatment Court (VTC) Coordination Act of 2019. U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., is the bill’s sponsor, and currently there are over 117 bipartisan co-sponsors.
The bill’s purpose is simple: to authorize the Justice Department to support the nation’s state judicial systems with the needed policies, training resources, and funding to establish and sustain their respective state veterans treatment court programs.
Why is this bill important and needed? There are several reasons:
A. According to the VA, over 700,000 veterans can be found in some phase of the criminal justice system. Additionally, many veterans suffer from service and/or combat related conditions — such as PTSD, traumatic brain injury (TBI), alcohol and substance abuse, and military sexual trauma (MST) — that could be contributing factors to subsequent criminal behavior. The premise behind the VTC is that treatment and rehabilitation — vice punishment — are the keys to success. Upon completion of the VTC, veterans are re-integrated back into the very community that they swore to protect and defend. In many cases, their original charges are dismissed. Veterans return as a positively impactful and contributing citizen, and not as a burden to the local criminal justice system or to the community. They get “a second chance.”
B. Many VTCs are reporting impressive metrics of success. For example, Tampa’s 13th Judicial Circuit’s VTC has perhaps the largest program in the nation, with a current docket of 175 to 225 veteran defendants, and 120 volunteer veteran mentors. Tampa currently enjoys an over 80 percent success rate (graduate and no return), and currently saves its local taxpayers over $4 million per year in county taxes.
C. Multiple sources report over 400 VTCs in the nation at the county and circuit levels. But there are over 3,000 counties in the nation. Florida, one of the more robust states, has over 30 VTCs in a 67 county state (just under 50 percent). Not every state has an operational VTC. This bill would provide the required kick start to get the state programs established.
D. The VTC provides the forum and the community resources to address other veteran issues as well. Such areas include housing, transportation, education and employment. The volunteer mentor program can provide the needed guidance, networking, and resources, to assist veterans struggling in these areas.
Helping our veterans, many of whom have returned from multiple combat deployments, deal with a brush with the law due to service-related conditions, is an issue that transcends partisan politics. It demands the involvement and support of our fellow Americans. We depend on our brave men and women to answer the call to defend our freedoms. We must also be there to support them by providing the needed resources to get them well again. Let your elected congressman and senator know that you support HR886.
DJ Reyes is a retired Army colonel with over 33 years of service with tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is the senior mentor and program coordinator Veterans Treatment Court in Tampa, Florida.
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