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The Unique Needs of Veterans in the Legal System

Vet courts, like drug courts, treat the underlying factors for first-time offenders.


There is evidence the combination of addiction-treatment programs and frequent court appearances involved in the drug court system can effectively reduce prison populations and save taxpayer money. It is a system predicated on the idea that certain types of crimes (and certain types of people perpetrating them) require more creative solutions than automatic lockups and minimum sentence guidelines. In the case of drug courts, the focus is the crimes that stem from addiction. Recently, the same idea has been extended to address the unique needs of another particularly vulnerable subgroup of people who may find themselves navigating the justice system against their will: veterans.

“Veterans-only court programs are changing the way the criminal justice system and the VA respond when veterans are arrested for crimes stemming from mental illness, trauma, and/or substance abuse,” says the non-profit organization Justice for Vets, which is an offshoot of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. (Justice for Vets is hosting "Vet Court Con," the first national conference on vet courts, in Washington, D.C., next Monday.)

There are currently over 700,000 veterans somewhere in the corrections system. Of those, 81 percent had a substance abuse problem when they were arrested.

The group has outlined the most important components of vet courts, which include substance abuse treatment and mental health services, an emphasis on teamwork between prosecution and defense, and peer mentorship throughout sentencing and treatment. The peer program is an aspect that seems especially vital in getting arrested vets the continued help they need; mentors help with “peer support, housing, employment linkages, job training, education, transportation, disability compensation claims, discharge status and other linkages.” Training materials from one vet court in Buffalo emphasize that peer mentors are meant to help vets navigate the court system, not to be counselors. “75% of time, you are just a friend,” reads one PowerPoint slide.

Last year a 60 Minutes segment profiled a judge who helped set up a vet court in Harris County, Texas. Judge Marc Carter had noticed that his courtroom was seeing hundreds of vets per month, arrested for first-time offenses—like assault, drunk driving, or domestic abuse—all of which could be traced back to some combination of PTSD, and the drugs or alcohol the vets were using to self-medicate for it. The local VA hospital had space available in its therapy and rehab programs, he said, but these vets weren’t taking advantage of those resources, either because they were ashamed of their PTSD or they were in denial of it. That denial and avoidance continued, until they committed a crime that landed them in Carter’s courtroom.

Carter, who is himself a veteran, told Scott Pelley that the vet court program was often actually harder for the defendants than typical probation. But it worked. The alternative sentencing kept the vets out of jail, where their problems would likely only get worse, and the mandatory counseling forced them to confront and work through their traumas.

“It’s tougher for them—they make a commitment to me, and that is, ‘I’m going to do what it takes, I’m going to go to all of the treatment programs,’” Judge Carter said. “And my promise to them is, I will be patient, and I’m going to give you time to change back to that person you were.”

According to Justice for Vets, there are currently over 700,000 veterans somewhere in the corrections system. Of those, 81 percent had a substance abuse problem when they were arrested. The organization also says that are 130 vet courts already up and running in the U.S., with hundreds more being planned.