Commentary

We need veterans treatment courts now more than ever

For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”

But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot;

An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;

An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool — you bet that Tommy sees!

– Rudyard Kipling

Recently, there has been a shift in the perception of veterans treatment courts, programs that serve as an alternative to incarceration for veterans whose involvement in the justice system is rooted in a substance use disorder, mental health disorder or trauma. Some have questioned why veterans should receive what they deem “special treatment” or questioned the outcomes these programs produce. It appears over the last several years widespread understanding of the issues some veterans face has receded from the public consciousness. Based on what I see in my veterans treatment court, we need these programs now more than ever.

In 2009, The El Paso County Veterans Trauma Court opened its doors in Colorado Springs, Colorado. At the time it was among a handful of veterans treatment courts across the country. Instead of traditional sentencing which generally involved incarceration or probation with little to no treatment, we use the leverage of the court and an interdisciplinary team of probation officers, therapists, and veteran mentors to offer support, structure and accountability in an environment where veterans feel comfortable enough to accept the help being offered.

After over a decade of operation, our program is now one of over nearly 400 veterans treatment courts across the nation. Combined, they annually connect approximately 15,000 veterans — who might otherwise be incarcerated — to treatment, counseling, mentoring, and the benefits they earned through serving. The program is rigorous and certainly is not an “easy way out.” In Colorado Springs, we have successfully ”graduated” over 352 veterans from the program, helping them reengage with their community, their family, and their country. By all accounts, veterans treatment courts have been an unparalleled success; courts that serve as a model for justice reform that not only saves lives, but saves resources.

When we first launched our veterans treatment court, the veterans we served were generally young and fresh from their service. They were dealing with serious issues such as PTSD and were self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. Make no mistake, these are challenging things to treat. But the time our veterans had been struggling was shorter, and therefore there were fewer pieces of their lives to put together.

As we have become more removed from the wars, the more chronic and challenging these cases have become. Many of the veterans we now see have been struggling with their mental health or substance use for many years. Their life has deteriorated significantly. They have more collateral damage in the form of spouses and kids. Their housing is more unstable, and many have experienced a prolonged duration of homelessness. Many are isolated and untethered to a community or family that can offer support. The problems are complex and intertwined.

To appropriately respond to this shift, our program expanded our resources and changed our approach from more reliant on behavior modification to a combination of comprehensive treatment and social support. This means more case management, more robust social services, and more training on the latest best practices.

Veterans treatment courts have always worked closely with the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide treatment and other services to the veterans in our program. We have strengthened this partnership and expanded upon services. Additionally, we have new community-based partners to help fill in the gaps and provide additional services. And we have drawn on the trust of our community to help place veterans in jobs. Many employers find that our participants are among the most dependable. They are veterans, after all.

Ongoing training and technical assistance are critical. When our program launched, the veterans treatment court model, using evidence-based practices, was new, and in the years since it has become clear that fidelity to this model is fundamental to our success. Our program has been fortunate to receive training from Justice For Vets, the leading national organization providing training and technical assistance for veterans treatment courts. To best serve our veterans, we have to understand the science behind substance use and mental health disorders and have an understanding of the latest evidence-based treatment interventions. Investments in training for new and seasoned programs must continue to expand so that we are equipped to best respond to the changing population we serve.

All of this adds up to the need for continued support from the public, the military community, and our elected officials. The problems experienced by our veterans that led to the establishment of veterans treatment court are not going away. In fact, they may be worsening. We must continue to expand programs that are proven to work; programs that restore lives, improve community safety, and save resources for taxpayers. After eight years behind the bench of a veterans treatment court, I am more convinced than ever that this is the right approach. The camaraderie that exists among those of us who served is therapeutic. As a veteran, I know we are most comfortable among one another and more likely to ask for and accept help when we see our peers do so.

Beyond the practical justification, however, lies something else. Whether in peacetime or at war, whether a veteran has seen combat or not, our nation owes something to the men and women who serve their country. If they suffer as a result of their service, it is our national duty to come to their aid. There are many crises facing our country today, from COVID-19 to the opioid epidemic, but we can never lose sight of how these and other factors impact our veterans. As Kipling observed, in times of relative peace it is all too easy to forget the sacrifice of our service members. Now more than ever, we need veterans treatment courts fighting for the freedom of our veterans, just as they were willing to fight — and die — for ours.

Judge Shakes has served as a district judge since March 2003 and has presided over of the El Paso County Veterans Trauma Court since 2012. He retired as a colonel in the Army Reserve, served in Iraq, and ended his military career as the commander of the trial judges of the Army Reserve.

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