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Today is Veterans Day in the United States. This means we should think, not just about those veterans who have been killed or physically wounded over the last decade and a half of the wars in the middle east but, also of those veterans who return from those wars suffering from invisible wounds in the form of serious mental health injuries, such as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Both PTSD and TBI have been linked to arrests among veterans. The most common criminal behaviors are: traffic violations like reckless driving, domestic violence, other assaults, drunk driving, drug possession, and firearms offenses.
When these veterans appear in court, paradoxically, judges have traditionally given them harsher sentences then to those who have not served. The United States Department of Justice, which studied incarcerated veterans, concluded that there was a sentencing disparity of approximately one additional year imprisonment for a veteran as opposed to a non veteran. Giving longer sentences to those who have served their country seems somehow wrong.
But there is a better way to return these wounded veterans to society, Veterans Treatment Court (VTC). VTC’s are a specialized docket for veterans. The veterans are identified, connected to services and linked to a support network so as prevent recidivistic behavior and to reduce the number of veterans who are incarcerated.
While entry into the VTC is voluntary, the Drug Treatment Court (DTC) concept of coerced treatment and individual accountability are integral. The veteran is required to participate in treatment, appear for probation appointments, and to meet all the terms ordered by the court.
Failure to do so results in sanctions including possible removal from VTC. Success is met with praise and rewards.
The team approach developed by DTCs is used to obtain the best possible outcome. VTC teams are composed of the judge, a prosecutor, a defense attorney, probation staff, a representative of the Veterans Health Administration (VA), a representative of the local or county veterans department, veteran mentors and other treatment professionals.
Team members meet at the courthouse regularly for staffing sessions that occur before status hearings. The probation officer presents basic information about each veteran and each team member can make comments. The judge works to ensure that all members of the team have a voice and attempts to achieve consensus. The entire approach is non-adversarial, with a strong emphasis on cooperation among team members.
After the staffing session the judge presides over a status hearing. Rewards are given for successful behavior and sanctions are ordered for failure to meet program requirements. The judge provides the rewards and orders the sanctions.
These courts are changing lives.