Martin Sheen, Allison Janney, and other former cast members of NBC’s The West Wing reunited to produce an advocacy video on behalf of Justice For Vets, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the creation of a nationwide network of Veterans Treatment Courts in the U.S. criminal justice system.
Half of the U.S. military’s returning service members experiencing some form of mental health issues, one in five have some form of post-traumatic stress, and one in six struggle with substance abuse, both related to experiences in their service. Many of the 700,000 veterans in the criminal justice system are there because of their service-related trauma, addiction, or mental illness. This is not limited to the veterans of the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2008, Judge Robert T. Russell of Buffalo, New York noticed many of the returning faces in his courtroom were veterans. The rising number of veterans in the city’s treatment courts led to the creation of the country’s first Veterans Treatment Court. The idea was to create a support group among the niche population of veterans adopting, with slight modifications, ten key components as described in the U.S. Department of Justice Publication entitled Defining Drug Courts: The Key Components, combining those with the ten essential elements of Mental Health Courts.
These courts allow veterans to appear before judges who understand the unique challenges facing them. More than that, Veterans Treatment Courts give vets the the chance to participate in recovery with fellow veterans, to re-establish the esprit de corps kindled by their military service. The court becomes their new unit with the judge in the role of commanding officer. The new team members support each other and are mentored through their rehabilitation period.
The Department of Veterans Affairs plays an important role in guiding recovery of the veteran. The courts area “one-stop shop,” linking veterans with the programs, benefits and services. A Veterans Justice Outreach Specialist, or VJO, is present during hearing to give the courts on the spot information about health records, treatment options, disability benefits, and to make appointments. The VJO is not a member of the court, but plays a critical advisory role.
And there is a lot of evidence showing Veterans Treatment Courts work.
“The concept is creating a community,” Judge Marc Carter of Harris County, Texas told a crowd gathered to watch the Justice For Vets public service announcement in Los Angeles. “It’s not only important in Veterans Courts but in the entire criminal justice system. While they’re in treatment they have success, but when they’re back to their homes they face the same triggers that sent them to me in the first place. In the Veterans Courts we create that community. It can change their lives forever.”
There are now 264 Veterans Treatment Courts in 37 states, and one in Guam. 13,200 veterans are in the care of the courts and their community instead of behind bars, with 3,000 more veterans serving those courts as volunteer mentors. The structure, rigorous treatment and peer mentoring of Veterans Treatment Courts are producing more permanent positive treatment outcomes, returning more veterans to their communities, and saving the American taxpayer the cost of incarceration.
“Vets courts will continue to grow as they do in Texas,” Judge Carter said. “The value of bringing people back healthy to their communities as opposed to putting them in prison and returning them in the same conditions is immeasurable.”