Best upon completion of treatment provided through the VA.

Best
estimates are that as many as 25% to 30% of returning veterans suffer from
mental illness (Seal, 2007). This makes transitioning back to civilian life more
difficult and the effects of combat are not always immediate; sometimes they take
months or even years to manifest. Related to the issues
mentioned above, veterans also have a significantly high rate of suicide. In 2012, an estimated 6,500 former military personnel
committed suicide (Henneberger, 2013). More veterans succumbed to suicide than
were killed in Iraq (Henneberger, 2013). In 2013, the United States Department
of Veterans Affairs released a study that covered suicides from 1999 to 2010,
which showed that roughly 22 veterans were dying by suicide per day (Kemp,
2012). Through the VTC, veterans can get needed assistance while
they work on their problems instead of masking them with drugs and alcohol (Mukherji, 2013).

VTCs are typically part of a community’s justice system
that partners with the local Department of
Veteran’s Affairs (VA) and other veterans’
organizations (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2015). Although the specific procedures for veteran’s courts differ
across the United States, the basic process is similar. In addition to treating the underlying
problems, VTCs hold the veteran accountable for the offenses
committed, take steps to repair the harm his or her actions caused, and provide
swift and certain consequences (JAIBG
Bulletin, 1999). In
addition, those facing criminal charges that
are eligible for veteran’s benefits are provided an opportunity to avoid
prosecution and receive reduced charges or sentences upon completion of
treatment provided through the VA. Although VTCs are similar in philosophy to drug and mental health courts they go further, by exclusively focusing on veterans and connecting them to VA services. Typically, the veteran is paired with a veterans’ outreach specialist—often a mental health professional—from the Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO) Program who serves as a liaison between the court and the VA and with a veteran mentor who provides practical and emotional assistance. In VTCs, both defendants and volunteers are veterans, so they share a common culture. According to Judge Russell, the Buffalo NY Veterans Court provides medical and mental health treatment, training and help with finding jobs, housing and transportation. In general, punishment, such as jail time, is deferred as long as the veteran complies with the program designed to treat his or her underlying issues, such as substance abuse or mental health.As part of the agreement, the prosecutor agrees to reduce or dismiss criminal charges against the veteran and the veteran agrees to comply with the conditions outlined in the agreement. In most cases, a judge will check on the veteran’s progress while he or she is in treatment and if the veteran fails to meet the requirements of the program, the court will act. For example, if a veteran fails drug screening tests or does not obey court orders, the court can impose upon him or her such things as community service, fines, jail time, or arrest him or her and then process the offender through the traditional legal system. Or if the veteran successfully completed the program, he or she will have the charges reduced or dismissed. At the time of Judge Russell’s report, none of the veterans who had completed the program had re-offended (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2015).DiscussionFor the veteran, successful completion of a VTC program typically can lead to the dropping or reduction of the charges while failure to successfully complete the program may bring back or heighten the penalties involved. VTCs, similar to drug and mental health courts,  ease the workload of the courts, police departments and probation offices and usually result in better outcomes compared to direct involvement of the court system. Program requirements generally include restitution to the victims of the offense, completion of community service hours and avoidance of situations related to those that may have led to the criminal behavior. Veterans and other similar treatment courts offer these conditions as an alternative to the court process, or if the courts are already involved, further prosecution. Research has shown lower rates of recidivism and a higher return on financial investments with specialized treatment courts than with traditional courts. A report on the Bexar County (San Antonio, Texas) VTC reported a graduation rate of 94% and a three-year recidivism rate for graduates of only 13%. A similar statewide study on drug courts in New York found the recidivism rate for drug court participants to be 29% lower than that for similar offenders who did not participate in the program. Similar rates have been found in studies of drug courts across the country. It is estimated that nationally, one year after graduation from treatment courts, approximately 85% of offenders had no new arrests (Russell, 2009).Similarly, a study that compared the rates of recidivism rates of individuals who entered the San Francisco mental health court (MHC) during its first 22 months of operation with the outcomes of others who were eligible for consideration for selection into the MHC—that is, other individuals with mental disorders who entered the San Francisco jail during the same period —showed that participation in the mental health court program was associated with longer time without any new charges or new charges for violent crimes. Successful completion of the MHC program was associated with reductions in recidivism and violence after graduates were no longer under supervision of the court. A study of the health records of 7,500 veterans who used the system from 2011 to 2014 by Andrea K. Finley, PhD, VA Palo Alto Health Care System, found that 80% of veterans who used the courts had at least one mental health diagnosis, and 80% had at least one substance use disorder. (DeAngelis, 2016). Many of the veterans had multiple conditions. Some had both mental health and substance abuse problems, while others had multiple disorders within one or both categories (DeAngelis, 2016). “More specifically, 59 percent of veterans had depression, 40 percent had post-traumatic stress disorder, and 33 percent had anxiety disorders. In addition, 65 percent had alcohol-related disorders and 16 percent had opioid-related disorders.” (DeAngelis, 2016). Finley also found that most veterans in the courts ended up using VA care. For example, the records examined showed that of those diagnosed with a mental health disorder, 95% received mental health treatment, and of that abused illegal substances, 80% received treatment for substance abuse (DeAngelis, 2016). A study by Department of Veterans Affairs and Yale University psychologist Jack Tsai, PhD, showed that veterans in VTC programs are more likely to find jobs and housing than those that go through the traditional court system. The study also found that veterans in the VTCs tended to stay in treatment. Using Veterans Justice Outreach  (VJO) Program data, Tsai’s team examined five-year outcomes of 8,803 veterans who received VA treatment and went through the veterans treatment courts from
2010 to 2015, compared with 680 veterans attending other kinds of treatment
courts and 13,935 veterans who attended traditional criminal courts. Those who
went to veterans’ treatment courts were more likely to have housing and
jobs at the end of a year than veterans in the other court systems. “However, they
were also slightly more likely to end up back in jail or prison over the year
than those in other court systems” (DeAngelis,
2016). Tsai and Sean Clark, JD, national coordinator for the
Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO) Program, both point out that
treatment court veterans are monitored more closely than veterans in other
systems, and that incarceration can be a positive part of their treatment plan.
Court sanctions are “not a sign of failure on the part of an individual
defendant” explains Clark. However, the long-term benefits of treatment programs for both veterans and society
are significant.

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Yet another study by John A. Pandiani,
Ph.D. and others (2010) compared rates of criminal justice involvement of two
groups: VHA service recipients and veterans receiving services from the
Department of Mental Health (DMH) in the same state. This study relied on the analysis of anonymous extracts
from databases maintained by the Vermont DMH, VHA, and the Vermont Center for
Justice Research. Participants included 1,640 veterans who received outpatient
behavioral health services during 2007 from a VHA program and 693 people who
were identified as veterans by the DMH program from which they received
services. Both groups experienced significant decreases in criminal charging
after receiving services (Pandiani, 2010).

 

Conclusion

 

Veterans and persons with mental disorders, to include
veterans with mental health problems, are overrepresented in the criminal
justice system. “This represents an important and costly social problem,
because justice-involved persons with mental disorders tend to stay in jail
longer than others charged with similar crimes and cycle between the criminal
justice, mental health, and substance abuse treatment systems” (McNeil, 2015). VTCs,
as well as drug and mental health courts have shown to reduce rates of recidivism;
therefore, the financial benefit of these courts is significant. A study of New
York drug courts concluded that by diverting 18,000 individuals to treatment,
the state saved approximately $254 million in incarceration costs alone
(Russell, 2008). The long-term benefits of treatment programs to society at
large are equally significant. These include lower crime rates, more employed
and healthy citizens, less need for government assistance and more citizens
that are contributing positively to the economy and society.

VTCs act as facilitators with the VA. For veterans that
are eligible for veterans benefits, VTCs are an important resource and
alternative to the traditional courts. If they are willing to participate in a
comprehensive treatment plan, the VTC can provide a means to accomplish that
with the added incentive that pending criminal charges can be favorably
resolved. There is no indication that traditional courts were accomplishing
this purpose on a regular basis prior to the establishment of VTCs. However,
many of these courts do much more than just facilitate access to the VA. They
also help veterans to address the underlying issues attributable to military
service that contribute to the criminal conduct.

My primary research question was: To what extent does
participation in a VTC program reduce the probability of recidivism? I
hypothesized that individuals who completed a VTC program would have fewer new
charges after successfully completing the program than veterans whose cases had
been adjudicated in the traditional criminal justice system. My primary
research objective was to determine whether participation in the VTC was
associated with a lower rate of recidivism compared with those processed
through the traditional court system. The results of the studies reviewed
support the effectiveness of the VTC in reducing the involvement of veterans in
the criminal justice system. Tsai and Clark’s study was the exception; however, the
results may not fairly represent the true effect of VTCs on rates of recidivism
because veterans in VTC programs are more closely monitored and according to
Clark “In fact, relapse is very consistent with the path to
recovery, which tends to have some turns to it.” (DeAngelis, 2016).
Finally, the studies reviewed showed an overall reduction in recidivism for
those processed in drug, mental health and VTCs as those with similar problems
that went through the traditional courts and thus, untreated.

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