Veterans Treatment Courts: Smart Justice

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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.

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Treating PTSD: An Evolving Science

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War produces many unforeseen consequences.  Not all of these “consequences” are detected – let alone understood – at the time they occur, but the long term effect can be quite unsettling to society for many years after a “war” has ended.

While it has long been known that trauma occurring in combat  can create radical changes in a person’s behavior, it has only been in the last few years that behavioral scientists and those in the medical profession have actively been identifying and studying the effects of Post Traumatic Stress (commonly referred to as “PTSD” for combat veterans from our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Veterans with PTSD - War in Afghanistan

In fact, in an article published in the Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health, they report that:

Military personnel experiencing combat in Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering wounds that are much greater in number and variety than those endured by veterans of earlier wars. This circumstance is due, in part, to advances in medical science and technology. Soldiers, sailors and  marines who suffered such severe wounds in earlier wars simply died because they were beyond the reach of then contemporary medicine or technology.

In addition, in earlier wars, Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome was not even given a name, let alone recognized as a valid form of war-related casualty. Now, PTSD is thoroughly documented and a whole array of treatments are available to veterans of the Iraqi and Afghan Wars. Friedman (2006) summarized PTSD symptoms as being typified by numbing, evasion, hyper-vigilance, and re-experiencing of disturbing incidents via flashbacks. Veterans and other non-combatant participants in war who have outlived traumatic experiences typically suffer from PTSD.    Read more . . .

Given their own particular situation, many reading this article may disagree with the premise it is only recently that PTSD is now recognized as a “valid form of war-related casualty.”  Nevertheless, the public at large has little knowledge of the terrible toll that PTSD and TBI have on our Veterans and their loved ones.

As I reported last week in a column entitled “What the Greeks Knew About PTSD,” I highlighted some of the current literature that casts light on the symptoms of PTSD and possible therapy programs.

If the general public “buys into the silver bullet” therapy afforded by self-serving soundbites, you can rest assured that our politicians and administrators of VA and DoD programs will most likely conclude that they have the problem well in hand.

Quite the contrary is true, considering the number of Veterans suffering from PTSD and TBI demanding access to new treatment methodologies.    Sadly, coverage for inexpensive treatments such as Hyperbaric Oxygen (“HBOT”) and “service dogs” are currently being denied Veterans because the VA has yet to prove their efficacy.

Fortunately, independent organizations have seized the initiative and are now actively providing alternative therapy programs to help Veterans and their loved ones cope with the terrible consequences of PTSD.

In fact, many of these self-help programs have been going on for years.  For instance, the Veteran Treatment Court provides Veterans facing jail-time the opportunity to recover their life by going “drug-free” for two years and gain a high school diploma.  Their mentors in these Court-sanctioned programs is often a Vietnam Vet who has faced similar demons from a war fought decades ago.

The camaraderie of military Veterans is, in my opinion, critical in building self-sustaining communities of trust as Veterans seek to reclaim their lives.

We are still a long way to being able to provide our brave Veterans and active duty personnel the support they deserve.  However, I sense that there is growing frustration by Veterans and the public at large that our political institutions – particularly the VA – lack the commitment to bring about meaningful change.

Frankly, if our politicians are willing to commit brave young men and women into harm’s way, the least we can expect from our elected leaders is the commitment that they will be properly cared for when they return home.  Other than sound-bites, this commitment is currently lacking.

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Veteran Treatment Courts and PTSD

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It is pleasing to see that CBS decided to feature one of the 120 or so Veteran Treatment Courts in the United States on one of its most popular investigative programs: 60 Minutes. Found below is a brief summary of this very moving and disturbing report:

Two and a half million Americans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan; many of them, more than once. The VA tells us about 20 percent come home with post-traumatic stress disorder, known as PTSD. So, that comes to about 500,000. For some, returning is harder than they imagined. The suicide rate for the Army is up 15 percent over last year. For the Marines its up 28 percent. A few of our troops return to become something they never thought they could be: criminals, for the first time in their lives.

Around Houston, in Harris County, Texas, 400 veterans are locked up every month. We met a judge there who saw them coming before the bench, fresh out of the warzone and he thought a lot of them were worth saving. Judge for yourself once you meet some of our troops, coming home.

A byproduct of the 1995 Crime Bill, the Veterans Treatment Court (Vets Court for short) is a way for Veterans facing jail time to avoid incarceration. If they accept, they are assigned to a mentoring Veteran and must remain drug-free for two years, obtain a high school diploma and have a steady job at the end  of the probation period. This may seem like a good deal, but the path to recover their lives is difficult and fraught with temptation, particularly for those Veterans with PTSD.

SFTT applauds those in law enforcement and the judicial system and supporting Veterans organization for developing such an effective and common sense approach to help Veterans reintegrate into society. 60 Minutes paints a very sympathetic picture of the Veterans Administration in this rehabilitation process, but Vets that we have talked to who have participated in Vet Court programs paint a somewhat different picture.

It is evident that there is a high incidence of dependency on drugs, potent painkillers, antidepressants and alcohol among those with PTSD. One graduate of the Veterans Court Program who now is a substance abuse counselor told me that close to 90% of Vets with PTSD have substance abuse issues.

Now, the VA has very strict rules on issuing prescription medication to Veterans with documented substance abuse problems. In other words, it may be difficult for Veterans to receive proper treatment for PTSD if substance abuse and PTSD are treated as mutually exclusive problems. This clearly introduces a level of difficulty for the VA in providing the type of comprehensive rehabilitation treatment these Vets deserve. Some may call it Catch 22, but I am sure our Vets find it no laughing matter.

In any event, SFTT applauds the Veteran Treatment Courts and is committed to help them expand across the United States.

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