What Do You Know About Veteran Treatment Courts?

A Veteran is strengthened by their military service but combat experience has unfortunately left a growing number of veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or other mental health issues.  Many states and local communities have recognized the effects of mental health and developed special Veterans Treatment Courts that provide veterans suffering from mental health assistance that will help keep veterans from slipping into real legal problems. For members of our American Job Center (AJC) and Jobs for Veterans State Grant program (JVSG) teams, it is beneficial to learn and know about Veteran Treatment Courts. The opportunity represents networking with justice-involved veterans (JIV) service providers and support.

What is a Veterans Treatment Court?

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO) Program is a prevention-focused component of the VA’s Homeless Programs Office (HPO), whose mission is to end homelessness among veterans. Since the program was founded in 2009, VJO Specialists at every VA medical center have provided outreach to JIVs in various settings, including jails and courts. As of November 2020, VJO Specialists report serving in 601 Veterans Treatment Courts (VTCs) and other veteran-focused court programs across the U.S. The number of these courts has grown significantly since June 2016, when VJO Specialists reported serving in 461 courts – a 30 percent growth in just four years.

The VTC model is based on the drug and mental health courts that have existed for nearly 30 years. Unlike traditional criminal courts, the primary purpose of a VTC is not to determine whether a defendant is guilty of an offense, but rather to ensure that he or she receives treatment to address unmet clinical needs. Several factors distinguish VTCs from drug and mental health courts, most notably their focus on veteran defendants, and the involvement of volunteer veteran mentors who provide non-clinical support to veteran participants. VTCs reflect the communities that choose to start them, and there is considerable variation among courts nationwide in both participant eligibility criteria and operational processes.

Why Have a Special Court for Veterans?

An early sign that a veteran may have unaddressed problems may be when they first break the law. The VTC offers the opportunity for the VA, local support organizations, and communities to engage veterans and offer treatment as an alternative to time in jail. Those who have served our country are entitled to a second chance. Although most courts work with veterans of all service eras, communities are often motivated to start these courts by concerns about veterans who have recently returned from service and are encountering legal trouble.

What Type of Crimes Are Referred to a Veterans Court?

Usually, VTCs hear cases involving misdemeanor charges other than those involving sexual offenses or violent crimes. A VTC case referral varies by local and state laws. A veteran’s participation in treatment court is always voluntary, and treatment needs are determined by a mental health professional.

What Are the Usual Outcomes of a Veterans Court?

Most veterans receive treatment through VA’s health network as necessary, although some VTCs also work with veterans who are not eligible for VA care. Non-eligible veterans receive care from community health providers. During treatment, a judge regularly checks on the veteran progress. If the veteran fails to meet VTC requirements, for example, they fail drug screenings or disobey court orders, the Court will impose sanctions. Sanctions may include community service, fines, jail time, or transfer from the VTC to a traditional criminal court. Research shows that treatment court judges are motivators who provide ongoing encouragement to participants as they undertake the difficult work of recovery.

The Veterans Treatment Court model requires regular court appearances (a bi-weekly minimum in the early phases of the program), mandatory attendance at treatment sessions, and frequent and random testing for substance use (drug and alcohol). Veterans respond favorably to a structured environment because of experience in the Armed Forces.  However, a few will struggle, and those veterans need a VTC program the most. Without this structure, these veterans will re-offend and remain in the criminal justice system. The VTC can ensure participants meet their obligations to themselves, the court, and the community.

VTCs enable participants’ likelihood of successful rehabilitation through early, continuous and intense judicially-supervised treatment. VTCs also serves as a “one-stop-shop” to link veterans with services, benefits, and program providers, including the VA, U.S. Department of Labor, Veterans’ Employment and Training Service (VETS), veterans service organizations, and volunteer veteran mentors.

Engagement Opportunities for AJC/JVSG staff

Volunteer veteran mentors are described as the “secret sauce” of VTCs. Veteran mentors engage, encourage, and empower their fellow veterans to change their lives, ensuring that together we will “leave no veteran behind.” In addition to providing camaraderie and vet to vet support, mentors assist with housing, employment, transportation, disability compensation claims, contesting discharge status, and connecting veteran participants with services available to them at the local, state, and federal levels.

Understanding the VTC model and its functionality becomes an opportunity for AJC and JVSG staff to network with and expand their service footprint within their communities, engage with new resources, and strengthen their understanding of veteran mentoring. In 2015, Justice for Vets launched the National Mentor Corps to provide professional development for volunteer veterans working in VTCs. Volunteer and professional development opportunities can strengthen our individual and team-based service and support our veterans overall.