When a veteran returns home from war, they trade adrenaline-soaked fire fights for mall shopping and combat patrols for classrooms. When life screeches to a relative halt, there tends to be a common question among vets, now what? The false sense that life will fall perfectly back in place, coupled with the idea of what is supposed to come next and the realization that the rush felt during deployment is gone forever, can lead some veterans to go heavy on alcohol and drugs, ultimately catapulting them into a legal system that, until recently, was unable to adequately deal with the unique challenges faced by veterans.
For Iraq and Afghanistan veterans it means coming home with post-traumatic stress, an increased risk for homelessness and in a small minority of cases, a temper that can lead to problems. For these reasons, Veterans Treatment Courts have become a phenomenon. The idea was brought to life in 2008 in western New York by Judge Robert Russell, who based the idea on making a hybrid court one that took aspects of popular drug and mental health courts already established across the United States. By early 2010 there were 24 operational veterans courts, from Buffalo to Los Angeles, with another 40 in development across the U.S.
With the growing number of Veterans Treatment Courts, the VA has required justice focused action at the medical center level, hence the Veterans Justice Outreach Initiative was created to educate the legal system, law enforcement, and jails on unique issues facing today’s veterans. Once veterans enter the legal system, VJO specialists help them avoid unnecessary incarceration through integration into the VA substance and mental health treatment programs.
Most arrests among young Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are for driving under the influence, simple assaults, public intoxication, resisting arrest and possession of drugs. Most veterans do not typically have a history of violence or drug use. This makes it even more critical to get those eligible into VA treatment instead of behind bars.
To be eligible for treatment services, veterans need an honorable discharge and two or more years of active duty service. However, with the ongoing conflicts, the two year requirement is often waived if the veteran has been deployed. If a veteran has other than honorable discharge, he or she can file an appeal. For those with dishonorable discharge they can also be referred to a Wounded Warrior program which will work with a veteran regardless of discharge status. The VA believes the success of the treatment courts thus far, is due to connecting veterans with available VA services at the earliest point.
The first encounter for a veteran is usually with law enforcement. The law enforcement personnel who participate in the program are trained to deal with PTSD, crisis intervention, and how to interact with someone who has mental health issues. They also receive information about VA substance and mental health programs. Law enforcement has been trained to remain calm and simply ask if the person they’re encountering is a veteran. A lot of law enforcement personnel are veterans themselves.
The VA educates the courts on what VA services are available and how the VA can be used to help the troubled veteran. While VJO specialists identify appropriate VA services, the court ultimately decides if the program is suitable for the veteran.
If a veteran is jailed, VJO specialists still have an opportunity to reach them prior to their release. Veterans are identified by prison mental health staff and connected with a specialist. However, the biggest challenge is that veterans don’t actually know they are a veteran and qualify for VA services. Young veterans automatically think of old people as being veterans, not young people.
Veteran Treatment Courts continue to spread across the country, welcomed by communities for their efforts to help veterans in need. No one who deploys anticipates returning home to life in a jail cell. With the help of Veterans Justice Outreach Specialists and Veteran Treatment Courts, veterans are being given a second chance. Veterans in crisis don’t belong in jail but deserve some help.
For more information and to find a Veteran Treatment Court near you, go to www.justiceforvets.org.
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Reach Jim Vines at firstname.lastname@example.org.