When I returned to private practice with Bradley & Guzzetta last fall I was asked to join the team of the 5th Judicial District Veterans Court located in Mankato, Minnesota. This week I will attend three days of training in conjunction with the Minnesota judicial system’s Veterans’ Treatment Court Planning Initiative. The 5th District has also selected me to attend Veteran Court Conference 2 in Los Angeles in May. My service with the court is entirely voluntary, and I am pleased and excited to have this additional opportunity to serve America’s veterans.
So what is a Veterans Court? These courts first began in 2008 and there are now 130 of them in 40 states. Also known as veterans treatment courts, they are an alternative to the regular criminal justice system. They’re meant to address the unique needs and circumstances of veterans while recognizing their service and have been very successful in the short time they have been in existence. Veterans courts are considered “problem solving” courts and use a multi-disciplinary team of professionals to address the needs of the vets in the program while promoting sobriety and stability. One in six Iraq and Afghanistan vets suffer from substance abuse and 81% of vets arrested have a substance abuse problem. Since 2004, the number of vets treated for mental illness and substance abuse has increased 38%. Simply warehousing these people as may have happened after past wars is not the answer and fails to recognize the unique circumstances of their service on our behalf.
The court is designed for U.S. military veterans charged with misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor or felony offenses who are often struggling with addiction, mental illness and/or co-occurring disorders. The goal is to promote sobriety, recovery and stability through a coordinated response that involves cooperation and collaboration with the traditional partners found in problem solving courts, with the addition of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Health Care networks, the Veterans Benefits Administration, volunteer veteran mentors and veterans support organizations. For example, the following are some of the members represented on the team: the vet court presiding judge, probation officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, county veterans service officers, the jail administrator, volunteer mentors, and drug and alcohol counselors. One of the key participants is the VA justice outreach coordinator who can keep the group informed of the veteran-defendant’s upcoming VA medical appointments, etc. Other things the court may address are health care, emergency financial assistance, chemical dependency and mental health counseling, employment and skills training assistance, temporary housing and other referral services.
So how does it work? After a veteran is charged with a crime, either prior to or after a plea or finding of guilty, the veteran-defendant with the consent of the prosecuting attorney may be offered the option to voluntarily participate in the program. Participation is always voluntary. The veteran-defendant then attends veterans court on a regular basis, as often as twice a month, for the duration of their probation. The team meets before the court session for progress updates on each veteran and addresses any current needs the veteran may have with respect to getting back on their feet.
Veterans courts appear to be working. 67% of vets in the program successfully complete their treatment and those that receive VA services experience an 88% reduction in arrests from the year before. As VA Secretary Eric Shinseki told Veteran Conference 1 in December, “Instead of either jailing veterans who have been brought up on charges or releasing them back to the streets, you have underwritten treatment as a powerful option for dealing with those who have broken our laws.”
Tom Hagen is a 25-year member of the Minnesota National Guard where he serves as a judge advocate. He deployed to Iraq twice with Minnesota’s 34th “Red Bull” Infantry Division. Tom is a member of the National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates and has practiced law in Minnesota since 1997. He concentrates on helping veterans and their family members receive the benefits they deserve.