Veterans Treatment Courts: Smart Justice

Several years ago, I had the honor to meet Judge John Schwartz, one of the early pioneers in promoting the benefits of  Veteran Treatment Courts.

Drug Treatment Courts

Drug Courts began to emerge in the nineties to deal more effectively with a growing drug problem in the United States.  As I wrote earlier,

Since the mid-1990, the US judicial system has recognized the need to deal with drug-related criminal activity and have established some 2,600 Drug Treatment Courts in the United States.  Drug treatment courts are specialized community courts designed to help stop the abuse of drugs, alcohol, and related criminal activity. Non-violent offenders who have been charged with simple possession of drugs are given the option to receive treatment instead of a jail sentence.   These programs have proven to be remarkably successful for reducing the level of recidivism in our prison system.

Capitalizing on the infrastructure and success of the Drug Treatment Courts, some 50 or so Veteran Courts have sprung up across the United States to deal with veterans who have committed a crime while suffering from substance abuse.  In many cases, these troubled vets have the support of other Vets (often from the Vietnam era) who “mentor” their military colleagues through the rehabilitation process.

Since then, Veteran Treatment Courts exist in every state in the United States.  These Courts provide Veterans with PTSD and substance abuse issues with an alternative to serving time in a federal or state penitentiary.

As the video from Justice for Vets explains below, Vet Courts provide Veterans with a second chance to recover their lives with the support of wise counsel from fellow Veterans, judicial system and law enforcement officers.

Aside from the fact that this appears to be a most sensible way to provide brave Veterans with the steady supportive counsel of a fellow Veteran, the Vet Court system has also reduced our prison population and cut recidivism by almost two-thirds.

While the Veteran Court system was largely the inspiration of community judges, law enforcement officers and a supportive community, the Department of Veterans Affairs (“the VA”) has been playing an active role in supporting these local and State programs since 2008.

Currently, there are approximately 220 Veteran Treatment Courts functioning in the United States with many other communities seeking to establish similar programs of their own. In fact, Justice for Vets recently provides a great deal of direct support and information for communities seeking to establish their own Veteran Treatment Court.

While 2017 applications for Justice for Vets support are currently closed, communities interested in this initiative would do well to contact Justice for Vets for more information on the Veteran Treatment Court Application Process.

Now, there are some – perhaps, many – who are opposed to any “special treatment” provided to people who break the law.  Nevertheless, the “cost” of incarcerating individuals who break drug laws and their exposure to hardened criminals seem to outweigh any potential long-term benefit to society.

For years, the VA has been serving up a cocktail of drugs to Veterans suffering from PTSD.  Only now have we come to the realization that this may not have been the proper way to deal with this serious problem.  In fact, opioid abuse is now an epidemic across the U.S.   One could argue that our Veteran population was well aware of this problem long before it hit mainstream America.

Should Veterans be subjected to incarceration, because the VA support system erred so badly?  I think not!

In May, we celebrate Drug Court Professionals across the United States who have contributed both their time, money and expertise to combat drug abuse in the United States.  If your community is currently planning – or thinking about – establishing a proactive response to drug abuse then you may well want to register for the NADCP Training conference that will be held this year in Washington, D.C. from July 9 – 12.

Justice for Veterans is a co-sponsor of this training conference and SFTT salutes those professionals who are giving their time and energy to fight drug abuse in America.

SFTT News: Highlights for Week Ending Mar 31, 2017

Found below are a few military news items that caught my attention this past week. I am hopeful that the titles and short commentary will encourage SFTT readers to click on the embedded links to read more on subjects that may be of interest to them.

If you have subjects of topical interest, please do not hesitate to reach out. Contact SFTT.

Lightweight Military Helmet

New Lightweight Combat Helmet Introduced
The Advanced Combat Helmet Gen II will replace the legacy Advanced Combat Helmet, which was fielded about 15 years ago. The service earlier this month awarded Revision Military, based in Essex Junction in Vermont, a contract worth about $98 million to make 293,870 of the new helmets. Made of high-density polyethylene instead of the current helmet’s Kevlar, the ACH Gen II weighs about 2.5 pounds in size large — about a 24-percent weight reduction, officials from Program Executive Office Soldier said at Fort Belvoir in Virginia.  Read more . . .

Iran Called a Destabilizing Influence in Middle East by Military Brass
The nation’s top military official in the Middle East on Wednesday said Iran is one of the greatest threats to the U.S. today and has increased its “destabilizing role” in the region. “I believe that Iran is operating in what I call a gray zone,” Commander of the U.S. Central Command, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, told the House Armed Services Committee in testimony Wednesday. “And it’s an area between normal competition between states — and it’s just short of open conflict.”  Read more . . .

Kim - North Korea

Dissecting US Policy Toward North Korea
Since the Clinton years, the US has considered military action and imposed strict sanctions against North Korea in an effort to curb its nuclear program — but none of it has worked amid fundamental misunderstandings about the shadowy Kim regime. US and UN sanctions on North Korea have sought to cripple the regime through restricting access to commerce and banking, but despite limited successes here and there, North Korea now regularly demonstrates a variety of potent and expensive nuclear arms in open defiance of the international community at large.  Read more . . .

Chinese Military Growth and Sophistication Attracts Attention
China’s rapid development of new destroyers, amphibs, stealth fighters and long-range weapons is quickly increasing its ability to threaten the United States and massively expand expeditionary military operations around the globe, according to a Congressional report. A detailed report from Congressional experts, called the 2016 US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, specifies China’s growing provocations and global expeditionary exercises along with its fast-increasing ability to project worldwide military power.   Read more . . .

Highlights of NPR Interview with VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin
Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin says the Department of Veterans Affairs “is on a path toward recovery.” “We have a clear mandate to do better, [and] to make sure that we’re honoring our mission to serve our veterans,” Shulkin told NPR’s Morning Edition. Shulkin discussed his current priorities for the Department of Veterans Affairs, including how the money from the Veterans Choice program has been spent, and his approach to the persistently high rate of suicide among military veterans, with NPR’s Rachel Martin. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.  Read more . . .

New Diagnosis Tools for Veterans with PTSD?
Researchers are working at brain banks around the country to see what is going on inside the heads of veterans like Fadley. They are examining the brains of deceased veterans in hopes of knowing more accurately what effects trauma ― psychological or physical ― has had on the brain. That could someday lead to better diagnostic tests, treatments, clues into where PTSD originates and evolves.  Read more . . .

Agent Orange Effects Still Felt Today
An estimated 11.4 million gallons of the chemical pesticide known as Agent Orange were sprayed over millions of acres of Vietnam forests from 1962 to 1970. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs has long acknowledged the link between the substance and diseases like cancer in veterans, but when veterans began reporting having children with birth defects, the VA stayed mostly mum. But a joint investigation by ProPublica and the Virginian-Pilot published Friday revealed the odds of having a child born with birth defects were found to be a third higher for veterans exposed to Agent Orange than for those who weren’t. The investigation also determined that the VA had collected information about the link between birth defects and Agent Orange during examinations of more than 668,000 veterans but never adequately scrutinized it.  Read more . . .

Drop me an email at info@sftt.org if you believe that there are other subjects that are newsworthy.

Feel you should do more to help our brave men and women who wear the uniform or our Veterans? Consider donating to Stand For The Troops

Will the VA Provide Better Service to Veterans?

With much fanfare, Dr. David Shulkin, the new Secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs (“the VA”), has moved quickly to address some of the recurring problems at the VA.

Dr. David Shulkin, VA Secretary

As the first VA Secretary without a military background, Dr. Shulkin appears committed to resolve several pressing concerns:

- Speedier processing of Veteran benefit claims and,

- Eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy and artificial constraints on “out-of-network” support for Veterans (Choice Program).

Indeed, Secretary Shulkin recently unveiled a 10 Point Plan to modernize the VA:

1. Firing bad employees

2. Extending the Choice program

3. Choice 2.0

4. Improving VA infrastructure

5. ‘World-class’ services

6. Better VA-DoD partnerships

7. Better electronic records

8. Stopping suicide

9. Appeals modernization

10. Internal improvements 

While there is little in these Powerpoint presentation bullet points that anyone would quibble with, implementing these broad goals tends to be far more complicated than listing the goals.   Unless there are rigorous benchmarks to assess progress toward achieving these goals, then this “goal-setting” exercise is rather fruitless.

In fact, it is difficult to reconcile the need for increased hiring within the VA unless one sees clear and conclusive evidence that “bad employees” are being fired.  In fact, the VA is recommending a hiring surge to deal with a backlog of benefit claims, a situation that has persisted for 4 years.

Are more employees needed or does the VA lack the “right” mix of employees to implement Shulkin’s 10 point plan?

For instance, State and Local VA coverage varies radically across the US.  For example, NPR reported in 2015 “that spending is nearly $30,000 per patient in San Francisco, and less than $7,000 per patient in Lubbock, Texas. Nationally, the average is just under $10,000. In places where more veterans are enrolled in VA health benefit plans, spending per veteran did tend to be higher.”   Why?  This is a huge variance that is not well explained.

Aligning the VA to Achieve Measurable Goals

As one looks at Shulkin’s proposed goals, it would be useful to determine their priority and the level of commitment (personnel and capital expenditure) that is required to attain them.  Furthermore, what are the benchmarks to chart progress toward achieving those goals.

For instance, “stopping Veteran suicides” is a goal that would find few naysayers.  Nevertheless, it is difficult to reconcile that goal with the sad fact that 30% of suicide watch calls are not currently attended by the Veteran Crisis Center.  Indeed, I find it disturbing that the Suicide Crisis Line has been centralized under the VA in the name of “efficiency.”

Perhaps, Dr. Shulkin and his staff have some measurable goals.  If so, they should be made public and both the Executive Body and Congressional Oversight Committees should receive regular updates from the VA on progress to date in achieving mutually agreeable goals.

Is this likely to happen?  Most certainly not!  This is an anathema to Big Government.

Is Firing Bad Employees Really Going to Occur?

With 365,000 employees, there are certainly going to be a few “bad eggs.”  While Dr. Shulkin praised the vast majority of VA employees, he told a cheering crowd  that “We’re going to make sure that the secretary has the authority to make sure that those (sic “bad”) employees … are leaving the VA system.”

J. David Cox

J. David Cox

Really?  It seems to anyone who has taken more than a cursory look at staffing within the VA, that David Cox, the President of the American Federation of Government Employees, will be calling the shots rather than Dr. Shulkin.

In most cases, distinguishing between a “bad” employee and an inefficient one is largely subjective.  Given the protection afforded by employees at the VA, it is highly unlikely that both the bad and inefficient employees will be “leaving the VA system” anytime soon.

In effect, this places a greater burden on both ” the good” and the many efficient and competent employees within the VA.  With little say or control on managing the workforce, I find it highly unlikely that Dr. Shulkin will be able to fulfill his promise to fire “bad” employees.

More importantly, it is unlikely that he will be able to realign staffing levels to implement his 10-point plan.

And Speaking of Bad Apples:  How About Dr. David Cifu?

If Secretary Shulkin is really serious about dealing with “Veteran suicides” and providing Veterans with alternative treatment for Veterans with PTSD, he would do well to question the credentials of Dr. David Cifu and others within the VA who continue to block Veteran access to better treatment alternatives.

When one looks at Secretary Shulkin’s complex agenda, one should focus on the signs that change is actually occurring.  Personally, I don’t expect to see much change over the next couple of years, unless there are clear bookmarks to measure that change.  Sadly, it seems likely that we will be looking at the same litany of complaints a couple years down the road.

Dr. Shulkin, I admire your bravado and enthusiasm, but question whether you have the right tools and authority at your disposal to bring about a much needed reform within the VA.

Veterans should be hopeful, but not too optimistic.

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