Many veterans struggle with the impact of traumatic brain injury, military sexual trauma, substance abuse, and/or post-traumatic stress disorder. Sometimes this can lead to homelessness and/or criminal activity. Veterans Treatment Courts (VTCs) are designed to provide support and resources for veterans involved with the criminal justice system, rather than punishment. These courts are modeled after mental health and drug courts, which were established to emphasize treatment rather than incarceration.
The first Veterans Treatment Court was established by in Buffalo, New York by Judge Robert Russell in 2008. Judge Russell became concerned about how many veterans were being seen in mental health or drug court so he created a special court to address veterans' unique needs. He understood that many difficulties veterans had stemmed from their military service. He created the Veterans Treatment Court to give veterans a chance to rehabilitate themselves and avoid criminal punishment. There are now over 100 Veterans Treatment Courts in over 25 states.
For the most part, VTCs have been established by county, not state. This means that in one state, a county court where one veteran appears may have a VTC, but the next county over may not. So a veteran in one county may get treatment after being arrested whereas a veteran in the next county may go to the jail for the same offense.
To address this inequity, Delaware established the first statewide veterans treatment court in 2011. Other states, such as Texas and Nevada, now have statewide courts as well. Several other states are working on legislation to establish VTCs on a statewide basis.
Some other states, such as Minnesota, New Hampshire, and California, have new laws allowing judges to order veterans to get treatment rather than sentencing them to jail, if they suffer from mental illness stemming from combat experiences.
When a case is heard in Veterans Treatment Court (VTC), a veteran has the opportunity to avoid incarceration or other punishment if they successfully complete all the requirements of treatment and rehabilitation. Veterans who do not comply with treatment may end up in the correctional system.
VTC provides significant structure for veterans, requiring frequent court visits, participation in treatment programs, and regular testing for substance abuse where applicable. Compliance with these requirements gives veterans the chance to have their criminal charges dismissed.
Appearing in a VTC is not intimidating in the way a standard courtroom can be. The judges are experienced with veterans' issues and are understanding of veterans' situations. The role of the judge in a VTC is to determine the treatment program that can most effectively address your problems and help you to get your life back on track.
Not all criminal cases can be heard in the VTCs. The types of cases that can be heard in VTC varies by county and state. VTCs sometimes exclude violent crimes, sexual offenses, felonies, or violent felonies.
Unlike in a typical courtroom, there will often be representatives from the VA present in court. For example, Veterans Justice Outreach Specialists (VJOs) attend court to educate the judge about the veteran’s medical history, including mental health issues, and also to make medical appointments that the court may require for the veteran.
Representatives from the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) also sometimes appear in court. Their role is to advise the veteran of their right to disability compensation, educational benefits, and other benefits that may help the veteran to avoid homelessness.
A representative from the State Department of Veterans Affairs is often available to advise you of state benefits available to you as a veteran.
Some courts have a volunteer mentor program and assign a mentor to each veteran defendant. The role of these mentors is to support veterans by explaining the court process and providing moral support. They also help veterans determine state and federal benefits they may be entitled to and help with applications for these benefits.
Sometimes these mentors are Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) volunteers; other times they are community volunteers from bar associations, colleges, or businesses. They do not work for the court, they are present to provide support to you.
Typically, VTCs contact veterans periodically after successful completion of the court’s mandates. The purpose of this contact is to evaluate the effectiveness of VTCs in helping veterans regain their footing in life and preventing future criminal activity. This helps the courts establish their success and provide public support for the courts.