In-Depth: Rep. Charlie Crist (D-FL) reintroduced this bill from the 115th Congress to enhance state and local veteran treatment court programs that support the unique needs of veterans who find themselves in the criminal justice system:
“I have seen firsthand the life-changing impact veteran treatment court programs can have, with Pinellas fortunate to have one in our backyard. Unfortunately, veterans in too many communities do not have access to the same support. Our bill will help expand and bolster such programs nationwide – providing the counseling, care, and support our veterans need to help transition into civilian life more successfully. With overwhelming support from members of Congress and veterans organizations, I hope we can quickly move this legislation forward to better support our veterans. It's what they have earned, and what they deserve."
After this bill passed the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Crist said:
“Pinellas and Pasco Counties have been blessed with a veterans treatment court program that offers life-saving and life-changing second chances to non-violent veterans caught in the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, many veterans live in communities where these options don’t exist. The Veteran Treatment Court Coordination Act will expand and bolster existing vet courts, while helping communities without one set up their own. I want to thank Chairman Nadler for his leadership moving this legislation, and we will continue the push to make this law.”
Original cosponsor Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) adds:
"It is incumbent on Congress to make sure our veterans receive the best possible treatment when they return home from serving our country. Unfortunately, due to the stressors and psychological impact of their service, some veterans become entangled in the criminal justice system. This bill would give non-violent offenders a chance to rehabilitate themselves through a special program tailored to the unique needs of veterans. I’m proud to support our veterans in every way that I possibly can."
The National Military & Veterans Alliance (NMVA) supports this bill. Its co-director and executive director, Ted Painter, says:
“The National Military and Veterans Alliance supported the Veteran Treatment Court Coordination Act during the 115th Congress and we are pleased to see the bill's re-introduction in the 116th. These courts provide a valuable and needed resource for veterans who are charged with a non-violent crime attributable to their service and allows them to get the help they need while avoiding jail time. Establishing a point of contact at the Department of Justice to work with the VA in the implementation of a program that will provide grants, training, and technical assistance to state, local, and tribal governments will enhance the VTC formation process and encourage the growth of VTC’s in areas where they do not exist. NMVA looks forward to working to pass this bill.”
At the American Bar Association’s (ABA) 2017 Annual Meeting in New York City, three New York state judges, a defense attorney, a district attorney and a veteran mentor discussed their experiences working in veterans treatment courts. All six panelists agreed that VTCs make a positive difference for veterans. Suffolk County Judge John Toomey, one of the panelists and a Vietnam veteran himself, said starting a VTC is “the greatest thing I’ve ever done as a judge and lawyer.” Speaking for the full panel, Toomey called VTCs a “game changer.”
The Marshall Project says there’s both little money and little demand for veteran treatment courts:
“[E]ven where [veteran treatment] courts have expanded, usually through the initiative of judges, there sometimes is little demand for them. In Springfield, Missouri, the veterans court has seen 43 cases in the past six years. That’s primarily because the 9,000 veterans who live in the area are almost all retired and older, says Rhonda Ledbetter, the county’s court coordinator. Even in counties that have a younger population, such as Phoenix or Dallas, few people go through the courts. In San Diego and Seattle, both hubs for the U.S. Navy, only 200 cases have been heard in the past seven years—combined.”
This legislation passed the House Judiciary Committee by a voice vote with the support of 134 bipartisan cosponsors, including 98 Democrats and 36 Republicans. It’s supported by numerous veterans’ advocacy organizations, including the American Legion, AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans, National Military & Veterans Alliance, American Logistics Association, American Military Retirees Association, American Military Society, American and Navy Union of the USA, American Retiree Association, Association of the US Navy, Military Order of Foreign Wars, Military Order of the Purple Heart, Military Order of World Wars, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, The Flag and General Officers Network, The Independence Fund, The Retired Enlisted Association, Society of Military Widows, Vietnam Veterans of America, and Catholic War Veterans.
Last Congress, this legislation had 109 bipartisan cosponsors, including 71 Democrats and 38 Republicans, and didn’t receive a committee vote.
Of Note: Some veterans experience mental health issues, substance abuse, and homelessness after leaving the service which can land them in the criminal justice system. Veteran treatment courts provide the counseling, care, and support veterans need to help address these challenges and more successfully transition to civilian life. Operating much like drug courts and other specialty courts for veterans who have committed crimes that can, in many cases, be traced back to struggles with PTSD, TBI and other issues related to military service, these courts can
The first veterans treatment court (VTC) was established in Buffalo, New York in 2008. Since then, additional courts have been successfully adopted in state and local courts throughout the country. Today, VTCs are one of the fastest-growing types of specialty courts in the U.S.
While eligibility criteria differs between courts, all VTCs follow a similar framework. Veterans facing criminal charges who meet court admission requirements have the opportunity to avoid incarceration and receive a reduced sentence and/or have charges dropped once they successfully complete an individualized treatment program. Judges supervise veterans, and operations are managed by an interdisciplinary court team. These teams include representatives from the District Attorney and public defender’s offices, probation officers, treatment providers, court administrators, VJO staff, and a mentor coordinator who matches veterans to a volunteer veteran mentor.
Rep. Crist helped secure $25 million for veterans treatment court programs earlier this year. Those funds were included in a $375 million opioids bill that the House passed over the summer. At the time, Rep. Crist said:
“Our servicemembers answer the call of duty and risk their lives to protect our nation. Unfortunately, after military service, too many veterans experience mental health issues, substance abuse, and homelessness. Treatment courts offer veterans facing non-violent charges a second chance, keeping them out of jail and into the counseling, care, and support they need to heal.”
According to the advocacy group National Veterans Court Alliance, there are over 461 veterans treatment courts in 22 states. Nearly half are in Rep. Crist’s home state of Florida.
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: Marine Corps Base Hawaii / Public Domain)