Many resources are available, especially on the federal level, to assist veterans with physical or psychological “wounds of war,” but not all wounded veterans know how to access them. Rather than to reach out for help, some veterans may engage in behavior that brings them into the criminal justice system. The veterans’ treatment court helps these veteran defendants address the issues underlying their criminal behavior and links them to available resources.
Q: What is a veterans’ court?
A: The first veterans’ treatment court was established in 2008 in Buffalo, New York, in order to respond to the unique needs of veterans whose combat-triggered problems, such as mental illness or substance abuse, have led to criminal behavior. The veterans’ court is a hybrid between a drug court and a mental health court. It uses a treatment problem-solving model rather than a traditional court model to assist veterans whose problems can be clearly traced to military service. Ohio, whose population of veterans is sixth among the 50 states, now uses veterans’ courts to help deserving war veterans who have become criminal defendants.
Q: How does a veterans’ court work?
A: Veterans in the criminal justice system are first identified through evidence-based screening and assessments. They may then be referred to the veterans’ treatment court by probation officers, public defenders, defense lawyers or judges. Such a veteran defendant also may be referred by a veterans’ Justice Outreach Specialist (VJO), whose job is to link veteran defendants with Veterans Affairs services. VJOs have now assisted more than 4,000 veterans in a veterans’ treatment court, and another 42,000 in jails.
Veteran defendants who qualify for veterans’ court can participate in a court-supervised treatment plan with a court-appointed team of specialists. This team may include court staff, pro bono attorneys, probation officers, health care providers and treatment staff. The team’s goal is to help each veteran navigate the system and get necessary help. Veterans’ court teams also collaborate with the Veterans Service Commission and the Veterans Affairs office in each county so that veteran defendants can take advantage of the many resources these federal organizations provide. Volunteer veterans also provide assistance, often serving as mentors to veteran defendants throughout the course of treatment. Veteran defendants who have successfully completed their treatment plans and have met certain criteria may avoid jail or prison terms or even have their charges dismissed.
Q: Do veteran defendants get their crimes excused?
A: No. The goal of the veterans’ court is not to excuse a veteran defendant’s crime, but to address underlying reasons for the crime in ways that are most likely to prevent repeat criminal behavior. Often, veterans’ treatment courts have a more stringent probationary period than traditional courts. These probationary periods often include random drug and alcohol testing, and veterans who fail to abide by the terms of probation are diverted to a regular court docket.
Q: Where are Ohio’s veterans’ treatment courts?
A: There are more than 460 veterans’ treatment courts nationwide. Ohio currently has at least 20 veterans’ treatment courts and more are being added. Check with your county to see if your judge has started one. Even if your county does not yet have a veterans’ court, judges in every Ohio court have access to a veterans’ justice outreach specialist and can connect a defendant veteran to federal services.
In addition, Ohio has now passed a law that requires every judge to look at a defendant veteran’s military background to consider whether it may be a mitigating factor in sentencing. Although the judge already had the discretion to take military background into account before this law was passed, the new statute helps to raise the court’s awareness that military background can be considered.
Q: Do veterans’ treatment courts work?
A: A recent study indicates that they work effectively: recidivism rates are far below the national average of more than 50 percent. In a Cincinnati study, only 10 percent of those referred to veterans’ courts were rearrested; 21 percent gained full-time employment, 31 percent moved to stable housing, and 16 percent enrolled in school or training programs. Youngstown reported 0 percent recidivism, and in Stark County only 5 percent were re-arrested on felony charges.
This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA). It was prepared by Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, who retired from the Supreme Court of Ohio after 16 years to spend more time on criminal justice reforms, especially veterans' issues.