As Americans, there are some important responsibilities we have that allow us to maintain our freedom. A civic duty such as jury service is often taken for granted but it serves a critical purpose in protecting citizens from the power of the government. Voting is another responsibility that not everyone appreciates but is extremely important. As critical as those duties are, it has been said that the most demanding service one can perform for our country is to serve in the military. And while we may not always agree on how our military should be utilized, there can be no denying the sacrifice our soldiers make in serving the country.
In an era where we declare war on concepts, as opposed to nations (war on terror, war on drugs) we have soldiers in all corners of the world, many of whom are engaged in some form of combat. This perpetual combat can lead to serious physical and psychological issues for many of our soldiers. Veterans suffer from higher than average rates of substance abuse, alcoholism, and suicide. There are legions of veterans that have severe cases of PTSD. Traumatic brain injuries are also very common among former soldiers.
Unfortunately, many veterans with these types of issues end up in the system as criminal defendants. Fortunately, many of our politicians and judges have recognized that there are serious issues faced by our veterans that should be dealt with outside of the criminal justice system. This has led to the creation of veteran’s courts, which generally focus much more on treatment and rehabilitation than standard misdemeanor or felony courts.
In the 4th Judicial Circuit of Florida, Veterans Treatment Court provides both substance abuse treatment and mental health counseling with the ultimate goal of diverting cases out of the criminal justice system. One of the big benefits that arises from the Veterans Treatment Court is that upon successful completion of the program, all criminal charges are dropped. This allows veterans to go forward without the stigma of a criminal record.
Not all veterans qualify for Veterans Treatment Court. First, the veteran must be active duty, honorably, or generally discharged. Next, the veteran must be eligible to receive VA benefits. Finally, the veteran must have a qualifying physical or mental diagnosis. Certain felony offenses will disqualify a veteran from being able to enter the program. Prior criminal offenses may also result in denial of admission into the program.
The Veterans Treatment Court is a very important program that is oftentimes underutilized. Many people are not even aware that it is an option. Below is information provided to me by a Veterans Court attorney in Jacksonville, which will provide more specific information. Please feel free to contact our office with any questions regarding Veterans Court.
What is a Veterans Treatment Court?
Most veterans are strengthened by their military service, but the combat experience has unfortunately left a growing number of veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury. One in five veterans has symptoms of a mental health disorder or cognitive impairment. One in six veterans who served in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom suffer from a substance abuse issue. Research continues to draw a link between substance abuse and combat–related mental illness. Left untreated, mental health disorders common among veterans can directly lead to involvement in the criminal justice system.
The Veterans Treatment Court model requires regular court appearances (a bi-weekly minimum in the early phases of the program), as well as mandatory attendance at treatment sessions and frequent and random testing for substance use (drug and/or alcohol). Veterans respond favorably to this structured environment given their past experiences in the Armed Forces. However, a few will struggle and it is exactly those veterans who need a Veterans Treatment Court program the most. Without this structure, these veterans will reoffend and remain in the criminal justice system. The Veterans Treatment Court is able to ensure they meet their obligations to themselves, the court, and their community.
WHY A VETERANS-ONLY DOCKET?
A Better Understanding
Veterans Treatment Courts allow jurisdictions to serve a large segment of the justice-involved veteran population as opposed to business as usual – having all veterans appear before random judges who may or may not have an understanding of their unique problems. Because a Veterans Treatment Court judge handles numerous veterans’ cases and is supported by a strong, interdisciplinary team, he or she is in a much better position to exercise discretion and effectively respond than a judge who only occasionally hears a case involving a veteran defendant. A Veterans Treatment Court judge better understands the issues that a veteran may be struggling with, such as substance addiction, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury, and military sexual trauma. A Veterans Treatment Court judge is also more familiar with the Veterans Health Administration, Veterans Benefit Administration, State Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Service Organizations, and volunteer Veteran Mentors and how they all can assist veteran defendants.
Camaraderie Among Those Who Served
Veterans Treatment Courts are tapping into the unique aspects of military and veteran culture and using it to the benefit of the veteran. Through these unique courts, those who served in our nation’s Armed Forces are allowed to participate in the treatment court process with their fellow veterans, re-instilling a sense of camaraderie that they felt while in the military. The Veterans Treatment Court is the military unit: the judge becomes the Commanding Officer, the Veteran Mentors become fire team leaders, the court team becomes the company staff, and the veteran defendants become the troops. For those who have spent any time in traditional criminal courts, a visit to a Veterans Treatment Court is somewhat of a revelation. Veteran defendants are standing before the judge at parade rest, saying “Yes, ma’am/sir” or “No, ma’am/sir,” and there is interaction with and support from their fellow veterans.
In addition, Veterans Treatment Courts act as a “one-stop shop,” linking veterans with the programs, benefits and services they have earned. For example, the Veterans Health Administration’s Veterans Justice Outreach Specialist, or VJO, is present during the court docket with a laptop computer able to access confidential medical records, make treatment appointments, and communicate this information to the court. The Veterans Benefit Administration may provide a representative to ensure that veterans receive disability compensation, and education and training benefits. Veterans Service Organizations and State Departments of Veterans Affairs assist veterans with additional local and state resources, while volunteer Veteran Mentors provide morale and motivational support. These team members are not employed by the criminal justice system and normally would not be present at the courthouse. Consolidating justice-involved veterans onto a single docket permits these individuals to actively support those in need of their help.