The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimate that roughly one million veterans of the current Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been cycled into the Veterans Affairs system to date. Roughly a third of these active duty veterans are returning to civilian life at risk for mental health problems including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The justice system has struggled to find ways to properly address the plight of veterans whose service-induced mental health problems have contributed to criminal activity. Veterans Courts are now attempting to strike a balance between accountability and rehabilitation in the interest of honoring the often traumatic service of our nation's veterans.
Who is Eligible to Participate
Veterans Courts in various states have different eligibility and participation requirements. Most veterans courts, however, require that the accused suffer from a brain injury, mental illness or mental disorder (like PTSD) and additionally require that this injury or disorder had substantially contributed to the criminal conduct that the accused is charged with.
Generally, veterans courts focus on lower level or nonviolent felonies and misdemeanors. The veterans court in Tarrant County, Texas, for example, primarily handles drug offenses, theft and some domestic violence cases. Veterans courts are generally voluntary, and any veteran eligible to participate is given the option to have their case heard in the special court or a general civilian court. Generally, veterans are screened and are only deemed eligible to participate if they meet criteria which suggests that they will succeed under the deferment programs offered by the courts.
What are the Benefits of Participating
Veterans courts work as diversion programs. Thus, if a veteran is sentenced in veterans court, he or she can avoid jail time by completing an individualized treatment program recommended by a judge. When the treatment program is complete, the veteran's record will be expunged. In addition to avoiding prison and gaining access to mental health and addiction treatment that many veterans desperately require, record expunging will allow veterans better access to future employment, housing and education that they might have otherwise been denied due to a criminal record. Finally, veterans who avoid prison time will also avoid the decrease or elimination of disability benefits that accompany incarceration.
Exploring Other Alternatives
Not all lawmakers favor the utilization of veterans courts. Some prefer to give special consideration to veterans in civilian courts rather than granting them a specific pretrial diversion program. Many judges have granted veterans leniency in sentencing, access to probation, access to treatment and access to various services while maintaining jurisdiction over veterans in civilian court.
Critics of veterans courts argue that only juveniles generally have access to pretrial diversion programs for lower level crimes and that granting veterans such access will undermine supervision of potentially dangerous citizens. Some critics only oppose pretrial diversion for veterans who are accused of sex crimes, domestic abusers and driving under the influence.
However, even critics of veterans courts generally support the idea that veterans who have served the nation honorably and have suffered mental injuries or illnesses that have contributed to their conduct should be afforded extra considerations within the justice system. Federal sentencing guidelines explicitly state that good works like military service are not ordinarily relevant in determining the sentencing of an individual. Yet, lawmakers are increasingly ignoring the advisory guidelines. The United States Sentencing Commission is even considering proposals that would reverse the current advisory guidelines concerning military service as a mitigating factor in sentencing.
Until a wider consensus can be reached on whether to expand veterans courts or treat veterans with leniency in the civilian court system, veterans courts like the one in Tarrant County, Texas will serve as guinea pig models of a new kind of justice.
For Further Reference
If you or someone you care about is a veteran and you have questions about the selection process for Veterans Courts and participation in them, please contact an experienced criminal defense attorney.
Article provided by David E. Cook Visit us at www.davidcooklaw.com.