The Need for Veteran Courts: Helping Returning Military Integrate Into Society


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Veterans Treatment Courts provide a needed intervention. Image by taliesin.

Veterans Treatment Courts provide a needed intervention. Image by taliesin.

Serving in the military comes with risks. Veterans experience physical and mental trauma that sometimes leads to difficulty re-entering civilian life.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and traumatic brain injuries, TBIs, take a heavy toll on the well-being many of those who have served in recent combat.

Could a special court system just for veterans keep those who have served in our armed forces out of jail, and improve their quality of life?

Statistics on Veterans Needing Services

Researchers have noted a high rate of mental health disorders among offenders in general, according to research published in Behavioral Sciences & The Law.  Justice for Vets supports intervention to  help veterans with criminal charges avoid re-offending.  The group’s website states “one in five vets  has symptoms of a mental health disorder or cognitive impairment.”

Kelli Canada, PhD, MSW, LCSW and David Albright, PhD, MSW of the University of Missouri, make the case for more social work intervention for vets. Drs. Canada and Albright note that veterans also have a higher than average risk of problems such as substance abuse and homelessness, in addition to being more likely to be arrested for violent crime.

While many of the risk factors of veterans are similar to those of other young males with modest educational attainment, the authors state, “there is sufficient evidence to suggest that veterans are at risk of mental health problems and difficulty in adjusting post-deployment, which uniquely contribute to coming into contact with the criminal justice system.”

Veteran Treatment Courts

In honor of their voluntary service, the sacrifices made, and trauma sustained, many would agree that veterans deserve special treatment when entering the justice system.

Veteran courts are a new system, the developers hope to provide effective interventions for veterans in the justice system.  The first court program for veterans or Veterans Treatment Court began in 2008 in New York.  By mid-2012 the program had 1o4 courts according to Justice for Vets.  Today, Drs. Canada and Albright write that there are  “over 150 veteran courts across the country and many more in the planning stages.”

Veterans Treatment Courts are similar in structure to Drug Courts which operate as a diversion program to keep offenders who work with the court system out of prison by providing the tools needed for rehabilitation. Dr. Canada explained some of the differences between drug courts and veterans courts to Decoded Science, “Veteran courts are only for veterans whereas drug treatment courts (DTC) restrict participation to people who were arrested due to drugs. Veteran court models are very similar to DTC models except vet courts include a mentor (also a veteran) and tracker (someone who is a part of the court team who conducts random breathalyzers with vet court participants in between court hearings. Vet courts are not as widely utilized b/c they are a newer model.”

Veteran Treatment Courts are special courts that provide mentors who understand the veteran experience, They’re a place where specialists can share information about other programs for veterans, and  offer a familiar structure for those veterans who chose to participate.  Justice for Vets cites a sense of camaraderie in the courts that make it easier for veterans to feel understood.

Dr. Canada anticipates the courts will prove effective, though it will take a couple of years to collect sufficient data. She states she “would expect that we will see similar outcomes to other specialty courts—mental health, drug treatment courts, etc.,-which generally show that among the people who decide to participate in the program, there is a marked reduction in recidivism both pre/post court intervention and when program participants are compared to a matched sample.”  In short, specialty courts have reduced recidivism in a cost-effective manner.

A Call for Social Worker Training

The researchers conclude that social workers can play an important role in helping veterans,  either through the “Veterans Administration or through community agencies to provide mental health evaluations, casework services, therapy, and/or advocacy for court participants.”

Dr. Canada would like to see more specialized training available for social workers who help veterans.  She reports that the University of Missouri School of Social Work has “a specialized military certificate program available for our MSW students.”  Veterans face unique challenges.  It makes good sense to equip those who work with them for success.  Veterans deserve support, and a second chance.

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