I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that even though I am a licensed attorney in my state and I consider myself fairly well versed in military issues, the fact that my state has six veterans' treatment courts within its borders was news to me. Among all the reasons I have for renewing my state bar membership by the end of this month, my Ohio Lawyer magazine subscription is one of them.
Featured on this month's cover, an article by one of our state's Supreme Court Justices (and her former intern) focused on these courts that are dedicated to providing treatment-based outcomes to veterans who find themselves in trouble with the law.
I found this idea intriguing and decided to do a little digging on my own to become informed on the facts I truly should have already known.
According to the article, Ohio ranks sixth in the nation when it comes to the number of veterans in residence. Our state holds approximately 900,000 vets and with our state's economy being a constant topic for news fodder, it isn't a stretch to imagine how veterans may find themselves brushing into the criminal justice system.
Those paying attention know that the prolonged engagement in wars affects warriors and their families in intimate ways. Some returning vets bear visible marks of their service while others' wounds cannot be seen with the naked eye. Older veterans who have not sought treatment for lingering internal struggles face the risk of entanglement with the law as well. The economic climate added to the very real after effects of service mingle into a perfect storm for many vets. Some lash out while others turn in and issues created by physical violence or self-medication can appear. Vets who face the pressure of finding or holding a job, keeping a roof over their families' heads or food on the tables or even dealing with the day-to-day realities of crowds, loud noises and traffic could descend into the type of behavior that crosses the legal line. And, as much as the powers that be speak to removing the stigma from seeking treatment for war-related issues, the stigma remains--creating a divide many never venture to cross.
The state bar association magazine article that has introduced me to this type of court explained how they came into being. Much like the drug courts that emerged when judges realized that a treatment based approach could end with better results than incarceration for drug offenders, the veterans' courts were born in 2008 in Buffalo, New York. Judge Robert Russell established this model that had been imitated forty times by August of 2010. Eligibility for the program varies, but most courts focus their efforts on those veterans who were charged with misdemeanors or nonviolent felony offenses after serving rather than those with criminal records prior to military service. Those veterans with violent felony charges may find a place in some of the programs when the path from their military service to their current state is a clear one. Referrals to the program can come from a number of sources--from lawyers to judges to probation officers to a veteran's justice outreach specialist (VJO).
Once veterans find themselves in the program, they are presented with the option of having a team assigned to them and completing a treatment plan supervised by the court rather than jail time. Specific criteria must be met by the vet to be considered "successful" in completion of the plan. Once successful, many will see their charges dismissed and others will avoid spending time behind bars. Still others will go on to act as role models to those at the starting line of the veterans' court program--an each one, teach one mentality that is familiar to veterans as they would have likely had similar mentorships at some point in their military careers. But, don't be fooled: these treatment programs are court mandated and supervised. It isn't a free pass, but rather a second chance. Offendors must meet the benchmarks and oftentimes, must submit to random types of testing and longer periods of probation.
Interestingly enough, these locally based court programs end up linking veterans with federally funded VA assistance. Through either the VSO or the Veterans Service Commission (VSC) officer, services that may have seemed elusive can be secured.
Proponents of these types of court programs see this as a way to keep veterans from falling completely through the cracks. Granted, the vast majority of veterans will not find themselves on the wrong side of the law. However, for those who do, this type of intervention can provide a chance or choices the veteran may have failed to grasp previously.
I'm interested in seeing how this pans out and if there will be opportunities for attorneys like myself to work within the program (even on a volunteer basis) to help make sure it runs efficiently and effectively.