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Treatment courts prove helpful for veterans

Many resources are available, especially on the federal level, to assist veterans with physical or psychological “wounds of war,” but not all wounded veterans know how to access them. Rather than to reach out for help, some veterans may engage in behavior that brings them into the criminal justice system. The Veterans’ Treatment Court helps these veteran defendants address the issues underlying their criminal behavior and links them to available resources.

The first veterans’ treatment court was established in 2008 in Buffalo, N.Y., in order to respond to the unique needs of veterans whose problems, such as mental illness, depression, PTSD, traumatic brain injury or substance abuse, have led to criminal behavior.

The veterans’ treatment court is a hybrid between a drug court and a mental health court. It uses a treatment problem-solving model rather than a traditional court model to assist veterans whose problems can often be traced to military service.

Ohio, whose population of veterans is sixth among the 50 states, now uses veterans’ treatment courts to help deserving veterans who have become criminal defendants.

HOW IT WORKS

Veterans in the criminal justice system are first identified through evidence-based screening and assessments. They then may be referred to the veterans’ treatment court by probation officers, public defenders, defense lawyers or judges. Sometimes a veteran defendant may be referred by a Veterans’ Justice Outreach Specialist, whose job is to link veteran defendants with Veterans Affairs services. VJOs now have assisted thousands of veterans in veterans’ treatment courts and jails.

Veteran defendants who qualify for veterans’ treatment court can participate in a court-supervised treatment plan with a court-appointed team of specialists. This team may include court staff, pro bono attorneys, probation officers, health care providers and treatment staff. The team’s goal is to help each veteran navigate the system and get necessary help.

Veterans’ court teams also collaborate with the Veterans Service Commission and the Veterans Affairs office in each county so that veteran defendants can take advantage of the many resources these federal organizations provide.

Volunteer veterans also provide assistance, often serving as mentors to veteran defendants throughout the course of treatment. Veteran defendants who successfully have completed their treatment plans and have met certain criteria may avoid jail or prison terms or even have their charges dismissed.

RECOVERY AND HEALING

The goal of the veterans’ court is not to excuse a veteran defendant’s crime, but to address underlying reasons for the crime in ways that are most likely to prevent repeat criminal behavior.

Often, veterans’ treatment courts have a more stringent probationary period than traditional courts. These probationary periods often include random drug and alcohol testing, and veterans who fail to abide by the terms of probation are diverted to a regular court docket.

Ohio currently has at least 28 veterans’ treatment courts and more are being added.

In Trumbull County, Probate Judge James Fredericka started the Veterans Assistance Program in 2015 to help veterans facing nonviolent misdemeanor criminal charges get their life back on track. Fredericka also established the Trumbull County Senior Court Assistance Program, a voluntary diversion program which seeks to provide solutions to legal issues faced by those 60 and older.

In addition, Ohio has now passed a law that requires every judge to look at a defendant veteran’s military background to consider whether it may be a mitigating factor in sentencing. Although the judge already had the discretion to take military background into account before this law was passed, the new statute helps to raise the court’s awareness that military background can be considered.

SUCCESS IS PROVEN

A recent study indicates that they work effectively: Recidivism rates are far below the national average of more than 50 percent. In a Cincinnati study, only 10 percent of those referred to veterans’ courts were rearrested; 21 percent gained full-time employment, 31 percent moved to stable housing and 16 percent enrolled in school or training programs. In Stark County only five percent were re-arrested on felony charges, and they just graduated their 100th successful veteran participant.

AN ATTORNEY CAN HELP

If you are a veteran involved in a criminal justice issue, you can hire a criminal defense attorney, or the court will provide you with a court-appointed attorney if you cannot afford one. An attorney is very important to help you understand your rights and possible defenses, or to try to get you into a veterans’ treatment court if your county has one.

If you have accompanying civil legal issues, reach out to your local Legal Aid office or go to OhioLegal Help.org, which will help guide you to the right service or attorney.

If you are a veteran and not in trouble but want to help, reach out to your local veterans’ treatment court and volunteer to be a peer mentor.

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