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Veterans Courts, A Second Chance

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Veterans Courts, A Second Chance

Veterans Treatment Courts use the drug court model in order to serve veterans who are struggling with addiction, forms of mental illnesses, or co-occurring disorders. The courts promote sobriety, recovery, as well as stability through a response that is coordinated, involving collaboration and cooperation with traditional partnerships found in Drug and Mental Health Courts, along with the VA and the Veterans Benefits Administration. Unique elements of the Veterans Courts are the Volunteer Veteran Mentors.

“If anyone in this country deserves a second chance, it's a combat veteran.” - Judge Brent A. Carr, Texas

The growth and success of Veterans Treatment Courts has found many states introducing bills related to veterans involved with the criminal justice system, as well as the establishment of Veterans Treatment Courts. June of 2009 found the State of Texas becoming the first state to pass legislation explicitly allowing the establishment of county level Veterans Treatment Courts. The States of Colorado, California, Oregon, Illinois, and Virginia have also passed such legislation.

Veterans Treatment Courts and Congress

On a September day, the leaders of the Veterans Treatment Court movement met with the House Committee on Veterans Affairs on Capitol Hill for a roundtable discussion. The committee convened the discussion in order to gain a greater understanding of the legal programs that either have been or are being established to help America’s veterans who are experiencing difficulties with transitioning from military to civilian life.

“We are helping veterans sincerely get the help and assistance they need." - Judge Robert Russell

Judge Robert Russell, the Founder and Presiding Judge of America’s first Veterans Treatment Court located in Buffalo, New York stated, “We should be proactive and not reactive,” as he explained to the committee how the idea came from witnessing rising and high numbers of veterans appearing on the city court dockets. Judge Russell described the ways the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court helps veterans to obtain the assistance they need to gain stability in their lives through the addition of specific forms of treatment, services, as well as through partnerships in the Drug Court model. He told the committee the vast majority of veterans have completed the program, and that none of the program’s graduates have been arrested again. Representative Buyer responded, “You win my wow award,” adding that Judge Russell’s success with assisting veterans, “really wows me.”

The Presiding Judge of the Madison County Veterans Treatment Court in Illinois (PDF), Judge Charles Romani, presented similar success through his court to the committee. Judge Romani stated, “In five months we have had no missed appointments and no arrests,” he said. “We have a duty to help our veterans. They are responding to our help.”

Volunteer Veteran Mentors offer unique services to Veterans Treatment Courts, working closely with fellow veterans. Jack O’Conner of the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court, a Mentor, explained to the committee that numerous veterans want to talk with other veterans. Jack stated, “Since our court launched we have added younger mentors who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as female mentors, because we have seen that our younger participants prefer to speak with someone they can identify with.”

The CEO of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, West Huddleston, gave the committee a more national perspective. Mr. Huddleston said, “The problems associated with the unique experience of combat require a unique solution. There is no justice intervention in this country as successful, cost effective and scientifically validated as the Drug Court model. Veterans' Treatment Courts build upon this proven success, maintaining the core infrastructure that makes Drug Courts so successful and adding key components of treatment and support exclusive to the needs of veterans.”

In America there are now many Veterans Treatment Courts, with several more in the planning stages. An agreement was reached that in order for various jurisdictions to have the opportunity to assist veterans through the establishment of Veterans Treatment Courts, they must receive support from Congress. The bipartisan, ‘SERV Act,’ was introduced in the House and the Senate. The SERV Act would provide funding for communities that have existing Drug Courts that serve Veterans, or desire to establish new Veterans Courts. West Huddleston stated, “This critical legislation is key to providing resources necessary to expand Veterans' Treatment Courts throughout the country.”

“One of the most moving and insightful panel discussions we have had.” - Rep. Bob Filner

The committee had nothing but praise for Veterans Treatment Courts. Representative Boozman stated, “I hope the committee will get behind this. If there is an answer to this problem, then [Veterans' Treatment Courts] are it.” Chairman Filner said, “These courts save money, but more importantly, they save lives. I applaud the hard work and healing spirit of the experts here today. As veterans graduate from these programs, our grateful nation stands behind them and celebrates their bravery once again.”

"The National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) is a national non-profit 501(c)(3) corporation founded in 1994 by pioneers from the first twelve Drug Courts in the nation."


"The purpose of the Veteran Justice Outreach Initiative (VJO) initiative is to avoid the unnecessary criminalization of mental illness and extended incarceration among Veterans by ensuring that eligible justice-involved Veterans have timely access to VHA mental health and substance abuse services when clinically indicated, and other VA services and benefits as appropriate."


"This revised Veterans Health Administration (VHA) Handbook defines minimum clinical requirements for VHA Mental Health Services. It delineates the essential components of the mental health program that is to be implemented nationally, to ensure that all veterans, wherever they obtain care in VHA, have access to needed mental health services."