If you had served the country and have been arrested you might be thinking to yourself, “how did I get here, and where should I go from here?” Going from serving your country to facing criminal charges is a dramatic change, but there is a way you can get through this situation and come out better afterwards. The veterans treatment courts (VTC) were started in 2008 and have since established a total of 461 courts as of 2016. These are specialized courts that look to assist those who have served and offer them treatment for issues they may have from their time serving. While the VTC is looking to help, the process of negotiation with them may be difficult or confusing for some.
Why are veterans being given “special treatment?” In short, “[t]he idea that veterans have earned ‘special treatment’ from the legal system arises from the understanding that the training to overcome the natural human aversion to harming others and frequently being deployed overseas to do that very deed is what may have caused the mental illness and substance abuse leading to one’s presence in front of a judge.” As the veteran population continues to grow, we are heading towards a time to where those retired service members will be leaving the service having spent their entire career at war. Due to the advancements in military and medical technology, many veterans are returning from war with injuries that might previously have been fatal. The most common injuries in the last 20 years have been post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). Studies show that veterans with PTSD and/or TBI are at greater risk for to encountering the criminal justice system. This is where the VTC can step in to help.
Throughout the legal system, there are many different specialty courts such as drug court, human trafficking court, mental health court, and many more. VTCs serve as a specialized court meant to support veterans with issues such as substance dependency and/or mental issues. These VTCs are a community effort to help support veterans. The VTC team will seek out veterans in the criminal justice system to evaluate their needs, provide assistance, and manage their care to help resolve any issues. The team consists of the judge, veterans justice outreach specialist (VJOS), prosecutor, defense attorney, and the mentors.
The judge is responsible for maintaining and running the court to rehabilitate the justice involved veteran. The VJOS is the liaison between the court and the Veterans Health Administration. The VJOS is considered the “captain” of the team and is the key to seeing a successful treatment plan. He or she will assess any mental, physical, or behavioral issues needed and enroll the justice-involved veteran into the programs. The VA established the Veterans Justice Outreach Initiative to seek more justice-focused action at the medical centers, including the education of the criminal justice system concerning issues specific to veterans. The prosecutor is the gate-keeper to the VTC, and defense attorneys should be putting together packages for the prosecutor that include the DD 214, awards, deployments, VA disability ratings, and character statements. The mentors are another key to the success of the VTCs who are usually veterans from the local community that volunteer their time to be a source of guidance and assistance for a justice-involved veteran. They have no requirement to inform the court (judge, prosecutor, or defense attorney) of any conversations that have occurred with the justice-involved veteran. However, open communication has been utilized creating a team environment to focus on the success of each justice-involved veteran.
A veteran must sign a contract to enter into a VTC program. The length of participation in the VTC in Suffolk County, New York, is typically 12 months, yet a contract may be shorter or longer based on the circumstances and the jurisdiction. Justice-involved veterans are not scheduled to attend court as a typical criminal case; however, the court date will be determined on the justice-involved veteran’s treatment and progress. The court appearance requirement may range from every week to over a month between appearances. The VTC differs from drug and mental health courts because they do not utilize a 12-step program. Instead, the court seeks to break the current destructive cycle of the veteran. The VTC team can provide a number of resources for a justice-involved veteran, such as a mentor to speak to, assist in securing housing, connect with legal services for non-criminal issues, rehabilitation for a number of issues, and support groups to name a few. Essentially, the VTC team facilitates a more stable environment for the justice-involved veteran.
Upon the successful completion of the VTC program, the veteran can be presented with a certificate of completion and a commemorative coin; however, graduation is depended upon each jurisdiction’s standard practice. Furthermore, those veterans who are seeking a discharge upgrade or correction of their military records may cite the successful completion of a rigorous program designed to turn a life around into a success once again. The VTC does not disregard the fact that the justice-involved veteran who comes before it has broken the law and he or she must face the consequences for his or her action. The court substitutes closely supervised mandatory treatment for incarceration to provide the justice-involved veteran an opportunity to address and treat the underlying causes of his or her criminal action while facing the consequences for breaking the law.
There has been a recent push to try and promote legislation on both the state and federal level to try and promote the management and operation of these VTCs. For example, in 2019 Congress passed the Veteran Treatment Court Coordination Act. The bill which was signed into law on Aug. 8, 2020, by then-President Donald Trump, directed the Department of Justice to establish the Veterans Treatment Court Program which aims “to provide grants and technical assistance for state, local, and tribal governments to develop and maintain veterans treatment courts.” With the backing of the Justice Department, the VTC’s will now have access to these different grants and technical assistance so that they can operate using the best business practices. These grants are used to help modernize the VTCs since they don’t need any extra money to be established. In these courts, the judge, prosecutor, and veteran defendant are already there, the mentors volunteer their time, and the VJOS is employed by the VA. Oftentimes, the grants manifest themselves in other beneficial add-ons to the court (i.e VA computer to determine eligibility, set up appointments, etc.). Along with this bill the Department of Justice will also establish different federal guidelines and points of contact to help guide the VTCs.
These recent effort should help to promote the spread of these courts across all 50 states, giving thousands of veterans access to rehab they deserve.
It is important to remember that not every jurisdiction has a VTC. Additionally, not every state has legislation for a VTC. The standard to enter a VTC also varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction based on discharge status, combat deployment, and active or reserve time. If you or a veteran you know has encountered the criminal justice system, please ask about your choices with a veterans treatment court in your jurisdiction.
Chad Lennon is an attorney in the military law section at Tully Rinckey, PLLC. Previously, he was the director of the Veterans and Servicemembers’ Rights’ Clinic at Touro Law Center. As a reservist in the Marine Corps, Lennon has held a variety of billets and is a recipient of the Purple Heart.
Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, email@example.com.