Ex-Marine Samuel Betancourt, a veteran of battlegrounds in Iraq and Afghanistan, came home with the demons of war haunting his mind.”I started getting flashbacks,” Betancourt said. “I started having dreams about combat.”He was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. But instead of getting treatment, Betancourt started getting high on marijuana and methamphetamines.
After his fourth arrest in Dinuba on drug charges, Betancourt, 27, was facing six years in state prison.”I thought that was a little extreme,” said Betancourt, who now lives in Visalia. “I thought I’d better get a lawyer.”His attorney directed him to the new Veterans Court in Tulare County Superior Cour (CA), a 5-month-old program exclusively for combat veterans who run afoul of the law.
Instead of being locked up, Betancourt was enrolled in an 18-month mental health treatment program approved by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.Some civil liberties advocates are concerned about creating a double standard. But in light of their sacrifices, veterans are entitled to special judicial consideration, officials said. “These are people who have served their country and as a result have received mental or physical injuries,” said Tulare County Assistant District Attorney Don Gallian, who oversees the program and is himself a veteran. “We want to pay back a little bit for what they did for us”.
Congress is now considering legislation to fund veterans courts for nonviolent offenders who have drug problems.
Veterans courts follow the drug court model: Instead of jail, the defendant is diverted to mental health treatment. But the judge can incarcerate defendants who skip therapy, break the law or fail random drug tests. To be eligible, the veteran must have served in a combat zone, been honorably discharged and be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or a related psychological problem.
Under the terms of his veterans court order, Betancourt attends three alcohol or drug support group meetings a week, can’t hang out with people who drink or take drugs, gets random drug tests, meets weekly with a psychologist and his probation officer, comes to court once a month and attends group therapy for combat veterans.
In Colorado, the Fourth Judicial District in Colorado Springs (El Paso County) has initiated the same type of program. Judges, probation officials, legislators, representatives of the district attorney and public defender and state and El Paso County health and human services offices gathered in February of this year at the El Paso County Judicial Building to announce the formal opening of the newly developed Veteran Trauma Court and to launch and to establish Colorado’s first court specifically designed to meet the unique needs of military veterans with service-related trauma disorders who have entered the criminal justice system.
The grant-funded court is modeled after other problem solving courts such as drug and mental health courts. It will offer eligible offenders an alternative to incarceration through treatment and counseling and regular court appearances.
The Colorado Division of Behavioral Health estimates approximately 1,540 veterans will receive diversion and treatment services through the life of the five-year grant.Those eligible for treatment and counseling services through the court are military veterans charged with a lower-level felony in the 4th Judicial District who experienced trauma related to military service and have been diagnosed with a trauma spectrum disorder and exhibit a willingness to actively participate in treatment and recovery and fully cooperate with the court.
H. Michael’s Take:
Statistics on the success of veterans courts nationwide haven’t been compiled. But in the Buffalo program, 30 of the 150 vets enrolled have graduated and none of the graduates has been arrested since, said coordinator Jack O’Connor. Five flunked out and went to jail or paid a fine.
Prosecutors, (and ex prosecutors like myself) know that the upsurge of veterans being arrested for vandalism, drug use and domestic violence, when their backgrounds show no history of wrongdoing before going to war, means something is wrong that can be traced to the obvious trauma these men and women suffered in war.
In a 2007 study by the Rand Corp. estimated that about 18 percent of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are coming home with post-traumatic stress syndrome and half don’t seek treatment. About 1.7 million service members have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Veterans don’t break the law more than anyone else, but those who do are likely to be abusing drugs and alcohol, according to a 2000 study by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.
In short – this idea, like Mental Health Courts ( see older Blog Entry), is a good idea whose time has come!