by Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton and Jessica
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
Introducing the veterans’ treatment court
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
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
Helping veterans through the process
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
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/.