Our state is home to more than half a million veterans. They’ve stormed beaches at Normandy and Iwo Jima, patrolled the jungles of Vietnam, and fought repression and terror in the Middle East.
We are proud to call them Arizonans.
When these men and women return home from conflicts abroad, the transition back to civilian life can sometimes mark the beginning of a new battle to overcome the mental and physical tolls of combat. With the support of friends and family members, and the tireless work of Veterans Service Organizations, many veterans surmount these challenges.
Some veterans who lack support systems after leaving the military may struggle to confront obstacles on their own. For some, this means coming into contact with the criminal justice system.
While there is no justification for criminal behavior, it is important to recognize when certain actions may be symptomatic of the harrowing experiences a veteran has endured during service.
The vicious cycle awaiting veterans
Many veterans have experienced multiple deployments, which can increase the risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. It is not uncommon for this to lead to substance abuse, and in some cases, run-ins with the law.
According to a report by the Government Accountability Office, veterans who go through the justice system have high rates of mental illness, substance abuse, homelessness and other health-related issues. The GAO found that veterans often do not seek mental health treatment due to concerns over career prospects, lack of understanding or awareness, and logistical challenges in accessing care.
The combination of mental health disorders and substance abuse places veterans at higher risk of incarceration, and our criminal justice system does not provide the types of treatments that would actually address a veteran’s underlying service-connected issues.
The result is a vicious cycle: Service-connected mental illness is overcriminalized, incarcerated veterans are under-treated, and recidivism rates continue to grow.
Treatment courts offer a way out
To remedy the absence of veteran-specific treatment in our criminal justice system, the Department of Veterans Affairs created the Veterans Justice Outreach program in 2009. The program established diversionary courts that remove veterans from the regular criminal justice process and provide tailored treatments to address underlying issues such as post-traumatic stress and substance abuse.
Veterans treatment courts have a track record of preventing initial incarceration and reducing recidivism rates among the veteran population. Each court partners with a local VA medical center and hires Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO) specialists to link veterans to critical veterans court services. This is particularly important for those veterans who may not be aware of the resources available to them.
There are 293 VJO specialists in 365 veterans treatment courts nationwide. These specialists identify veterans in jails and local courts, assess their health status and help to develop a rehabilitation treatment program specific to each veteran’s needs.
What's still missing: VJO specialists
However, the VA lacks a sufficient number of VJO specialists, which has led to an underuse of available veterans court services and an inability to reach veterans in need of treatment.
According to VA data, the demand for VJO specialists is outpacing the program’s ability to serve all potentially eligible veterans. Without sufficient specialists, additional veterans treatment courts cannot be established and existing courts will be less effective.
To ensure that our veterans receive swift and appropriate access to justice, we have worked together to craft the Veterans Treatment Court Improvement Act. This legislation, set to be introduced in the U.S. Senate this month, will provide 50 additional VJO specialists for new and understaffed veterans treatment courts.
Veterans treatment courts are an important part of the support system our veterans have earned with their service. By increasing the number of dedicated specialists at these facilities, fewer veterans will get lost in the criminal justice system and go without treatment.
Published by Sen. Jeff Flake and Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich on April 19th. View more information on the Veterans Treatment Court Improvement Act here.