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Restoring honor: Inside veterans' treatment courts

View video about Mansfield Municipal Court's veterans' treatment court

by Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton and Jessica Lagarce

With approximately 900,000 veterans, Ohio has the sixth largest population of veterans among the 50 states.1 Many of these veterans suffer from serious mental illnesses and substance abuse issues resulting from their military service. Several have been diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury. Consequently, many veterans end up homeless, unemployed, suicidal and disconnected from family, friends and communities. Some veterans may engage in domestic violence or self-medicate with drugs as a means of avoiding or denying that they might have a problem. Others may begin stealing to support their drug habits. Veterans who suffer problems as a result of their military service may act out and behave differently, and many end up in the criminal justice system without the resources and support they need to survive.

Introducing the veterans’ treatment court
A few years ago, I was introduced to the concept of a veterans’ treatment court, which is a hybrid between a drug court and mental health court that focuses on veterans. Because many veterans in the criminal justice system had no criminal history before their tour of duty, a veterans’ treatment court tries to address the reasons why a veteran has entered the criminal justice system and to identify and provide the means for the veteran to use the many resources available.

Modeled after the first veterans’ treatment court, established in 2008 by Judge Robert Russell in Buffalo, N.Y., these courts seek to substitute “a treatment problem-solving model for traditional court processing” for criminal defendants who are veterans with substance dependency and mental illnesses.2 These courts distinguish between those veterans who had a criminal history before their military service and those who have entered the criminal justice system since completing their military service. Some veterans have come back completely changed due to repeated exposures to death, danger and concussions of the brain from improvised explosive devices or other explosions.

A veteran charged with a misdemeanor or nonviolent felony offense generally is eligible to participate in this specialized docket. Some programs also accept veterans who have been charged with violent felonies if the veteran has a problem that can be clearly traced to the veteran’s military service.

Helping veterans through the process
Once veterans in the criminal justice system are identified through evidence-based screening and assessments, referral to the veterans’ treatment court may be made by a probation officer, public defender, defense lawyer, judge or a veteran’s justice outreach specialist (VJO)—whose sole job is to link veteran defendants with the Veterans Affairs services that they need.3 The court establishes a team to help the veteran through this process, which includes court staff, probation officers and health care providers.

The court provides the veteran the opportunity to participate in a judicially supervised treatment plan with a team of specialists instead of incarceration. On successful competition of the specific criteria in their treatment plan, many veteran defendants will have their charges dismissed while others may avoid a jail or prison term. Other veterans volunteer as mentors in the veterans’ treatment courts to work with the veteran defendants throughout their treatment. This relationship promotes and fosters a “can do” attitude in the veteran, encouraging him or her to accomplish treatment goals. It also reinforces the fact that the veterans are not alone and that the mentors are there for them.

Courts assisting veterans with mental health care, substance abuse treatment and more 
A unique aspect of a veterans’ treatment court is that the VA has a multitude of services to assist a veteran defendant, including mental health care, drug and alcohol abuse treatment, assistance with physical health needs, housing and employment—resources that are often reduced or lacking at the local level. The veteran can be linked to these federal services by a Veterans Service Commission (VSC) officer or the VJO specialist in the veteran’s county of residence.4

Veterans’ treatment courts help criminal defendants who are veterans deal with trauma and help restore some measure of mental health. It is important to note that these courts do not excuse the veterans for committing the criminal offenses. Often, veterans’ treatment courts have a more stringent probationary period, including random drug and alcohol testing, and will divert the veterans who fail to abide by the terms of probation to the regular docket. These courts also collaborate with the VSC in each county and with the VA so that the defendants may take advantage of the many resources they provide.

Ohio’s veterans’ courts
Ohio currently has six veterans’ treatment courts: Cleveland Municipal Court; Hamilton County Common Pleas Court; Mansfield Municipal Court; Middletown Municipal Court; Stark County Common Pleas Court; and Youngstown Municipal Court. Many other judges in Ohio, both municipal and common pleas, are in the planning stages of establishing a veterans’ treatment court, while others have expressed an interest, including courts in Akron, Dayton,and Toledo. Butler, Franklin, Greene, Guernsey, Hamilton, Marion and Stark counties have also expressed interest. These numbers continue to grow. The Supreme Court of Ohio urges all specialty dockets to become certified. Current veterans’ treatment courts in Ohio are either in the process of or have already become certified. Beginning in January 2013, all Ohio specialty dockets will be required to meet uniform procedural standards to be on the Supreme Court of Ohio’s approved specialty dockets list, although they may continue to operate without that status.5

Allowing veterans to heal
A veterans’ treatment court involves everyone from probation officers, crisis intervention teams, law enforcement, healthcare providers and the VA, to veteran volunteer mentors, treatment staff and pro bono attorneys, all working together to determine why veterans end up in the criminal justice system, break the cycle and make sure that they are able to heal.

Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, former trial judge for seven years, and justice for 16, is the daughter of American missionaries and was born and raised in Thailand. She works on state and national reforms in adoption law and with veterans and persons with mental illness in the criminal justice system.

Jessica Lagarce served as an extern to Justice Stratton while a student at Thomas M. Cooley Law School. Lagarce earned her juris doctorate in January 2012.

Endnotes
1 Press Release, Department of Veterans Services, ODVS Director Completes Visits to all 88 County Veterans Service Offices (Oct. 25, 2011), available at http://dvs.ohio.gov/Portals/0/library/odvs/news/CVSOVisits-release.pdf.

2 Buffalo Veteran’s Court: Mentoring and Veterans Hospital Program Policy and Procedure Manual, 2 (2010), available at http://ejfi.org/PDF/Russell_vet_court_manual.pdf.

3 Id; For a list of all VJO specialists in Ohio, see U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Justice Outreach Contacts, www.va.gov/HOMELESS/VJO_Contacts.asp (last updated Dec. 2, 2011).

4 There are VSC officers in each county appointed to help veterans apply for federal, state and local benefits. For a list of VSC officers in Ohio, see State Veterans Affairs Commission, County Veterans Service Officer List, www.vab.ms.gov/files/csolist.pdf (last revised July 12, 2011); see Veterans Justice Outreach Contacts, supra note 3.

5 Sup. R. 36.02 (describing 12 uniform standards for certification and operation of specialty dockets). For more information on establishing a veterans’ treatment court, visit the Specialized Docket Section on the Supreme Court of Ohio website, www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/JCS/specDockets/veterans/.

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