Helping Troubled Veterans in the Criminal Justice System
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By Vicky A. Bufano, Esq.
Faculty Member, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University
When we hear about crime, it often makes us wonder why did that person commit that crime. Criminal justice experts have long debated why someone commits an illegal act. Is the cause biological, socio-economic, social or due to something else?
Criminologists come up with theories that turn into practices and policies for criminal justice agencies to implement. The idea is to help treat and rehabilitate offenders so there will be less crime in the society and to prevent recidivism.
Different Sort of Concern Arises When Servicemembers Are Involved in Crime
When society notices that a particular group of citizens struggling with crime has served our country in the military, a different sort of concern arises. The public is liable to empathize more.
Many veterans have found themselves in the criminal justice system not because they were “bad” people, but because of deeper issues such as brain injury, physical wounds or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These conditions can lead to depression, homelessness, thoughts, and acts of suicide, substance abuse and criminal activities.
Experiences that these veterans faced in combat can produce significant challenges once they return to the realities of civilian life. Many veterans face homelessness, an inability to secure and hold a job, substance abuse, violence toward others and other criminal behaviors.
Instead of punishing these vets with fines or imprisonment, states are creating Veterans Treatment Courts to provide help, support, treatment, rehabilitation, and resources for veterans caught in the criminal justice system.
Specialized courts are not new. There are specialized courts, such as mental health and drug treatment courts. They focus more on treatment and rehabilitation of offenders than punishment or incarceration. The objective is to treat the underlying causes of the criminal behavior and heal the entire person.
First Veterans Treatment Court Founded in 2008
One of the first known Veterans Treatment Courts was established in 2008 by a New York judge. Now, there are over 100 Veterans Treatment Courts in 25 states. These courts are established by counties, not necessarily by the states. So some counties might have a court for veterans while another county in the same state might not. The result is a veteran in one county could receive jail time for the same offense that the veteran in another county would obtain treatment and services instead.
What Is Veterans Treatment Court?
Veterans Treatment Court is not a get out of jail free card to display when arrested or in court. There are requirements and guidelines veterans must obey to participate in the program. If a veteran does not follow the treatment requirements, he or she could very well be back in the criminal justice system and face criminal penalties, including incarceration.
Many times, the requirements include regular testing for drug abuse, mental health treatment, and frequent court visits or some type of probation overseen by a probation officer who tracks the veteran’s progress and compliance. When the veteran completes the treatment program, the criminal charges are usually dismissed.
Violent Crimes, Sexual Offenses and Many Felonies Are Usually Disqualified from the Program
However, not all cases qualify for Veterans Treatment Court. Minor criminal cases are certainly eligible, but there are exclusions. For example, violent crimes, sexual offenses, felonies or violent felonies are usually disqualified from the program. However, each veteran is handled on a case-by-case basis to determine eligibility and course of treatment.
Veterans Treatment Court is a collaborative effort of all parties in the criminal justice system. This includes judges, defense attorneys, state attorneys/prosecutors, law enforcement agencies, probation offices and treatment centers. Other organizations also might become involved, such as Veterans Health Administration representatives, Veterans Benefit Administrators and other veterans support groups.
Without treatment, these veterans are likely to re-offend and continue to suffer the same mental, emotional and substance abuse issues and turn to crime again. But with a team of people to assist these veterans in rehabilitation and treatment, they can avoid future contact with the criminal justice system and start to lead a more productive life.
About the Author
Vicky Bufano is a part-time instructor in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. She holds a B.S. in legal studies from the University of Central Florida and a J.D. in law from Gonzaga University. In addition, Bufano is a lawyer in Florida and a member of the Washington State Bar Association.
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