Specialized Courts an Option For Veterans in Criminal Justice System

U.S. veterans involved in the justice system face unique challenges. Consider these statistics:

  • One in six veterans who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan struggle with substance abuse, according to a 2008 Rand study.
  • According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 60 percent of the nearly 140,000 veterans in American prisons suffered from substance abuse when they were incarcerated.
  • The untreated mental health disorders that one in five veterans face can directly lead to their involvement in the criminal justice system, according to recent research. 

Since 2008, court officials have begun to step in to prevent jail time for veterans suffering from mental health disorders. Judge Robert Russell of Buffalo, N.Y., has offered one solution—specialized veterans treatment court.

Like other specialized courts—such as drug courts and mental health courts—veterans treatment courts set forth certain requirements before a veteran can participate. Eligible veterans must have a clinical diagnosis of a substance abuse and/or a mental health disorder stemming from their service and have committed a nonviolent crime.

While these specialized courts aim to keep veterans out of jail and the criminal justice system, the rehabilitation-style program is not easy alternative.
“They do more programs on this probation than they would ever do on any other probation in the state,” Texas State District Judge Marc Carter told the television news magazine, “60 Minutes,” in 2012.

Carter, a U.S. Army veteran, created the Harris County, Texas, Veterans Treatment Court in 2008. His program requires two years of treatment and supervision, including court-ordered therapy.

There are 178 of similar courts nationwide, according to Justice for Vets, a nonprofit organization that advocates for veterans treatment courts. Seventy-four courts have been added since 2012.

“Legal help is the invisible need,” said Antoinette Balta, executive director of the Veterans Legal Institute, which provides pro bono legal assistance to current and former service members.

“There are barriers like homelessness and unemployment because these veterans cannot afford legal services,” said Balta. “When veterans get legal help, these barriers are brought down.”

Balta participated in a panel discussion during a recent CSG policy academy, “Veterans Initiatives: Increasing Educational Attainment,” in Long Beach, Calif. The policy academy brought together policymakers, higher education administrators and state officials in a discussion on the best methods to accommodate veteran students.

The policy academy was a part of the CSG’s “State Pathways to Prosperity” initiative and included members of the Subcommittee on Military and Veterans’ Concerns. The subcommittee focuses on the issues and obstacles that hinder veterans and their families from entering the workforce, ranging from academic completion to housing. 

The goal of the subcommittee is to provide policy frameworks for states with suggestions and examples of successful programs, including veterans treatment courts.  

Sgt. Charles Sluzenski was the first veterans treatment court graduate from Montgomery County, Penn. He spoke in May 2014 at Vet Court Con, where thousands of professionals involved in veterans treatment courts gathered to learn and discuss all topics related to veterans’ health and legal issues.

Sluzenski was just one of many graduates who spoke about his success with veterans treatment courts and offered advice to participating veterans and future applicants.

“This program works,” said Sluzenski. “Put in 100 percent commitment, and you’ll get 100 percent confidence, pride and knowing that you have your life back.”