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Veterans Health Administration

Vets in Crisis Get a Chance, Not a Cell

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Veterans Treatment Courts aim to rehabilitate those with mental health issues and homelessness.

When someone is arrested in Tulsa, Okla., police officers ask if they served in the military.

Veterans facing criminal charges who are in need of mental health or substance use treatment may be eligible for Veterans Treatment Court, if they live in one of the growing number of communities where these courts exist.

Veterans Treatment Courts were developed to avoid unnecessary incarceration of Veterans who have developed mental health problems.

Although most courts work with Veterans of all service eras, communities are often motivated to start these courts by concerns about Veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq and encountering legal trouble. And not just in Tulsa.

In 2010, there were 24 operational Veterans Treatment Courts, from Buffalo to Los Angeles, with several others in development. As of early 2012 there are now 88, with more on the way.

“Both the Veteran and the community are better served by treating the Veteran’s mental illness rather than incarcerating him or her.”

Goal is Treatment and Tools for Rehabilitation

The goal of Veterans Treatment Courts is to divert those with mental health issues and homelessness from the traditional justice system and to give them treatment and tools for rehabilitation and readjustment.

Sean Clark, National Coordinator of Veterans Justice Outreach in VHA’s Homeless Veterans Program Office, believes the promise of these courts is due to their “connecting Vets with VA services at the earliest possible point,” as well as their inclusion of volunteer Veteran mentors who provide non-clinical support to Veteran participants.

While each Veterans Treatment Court is part of the local community’s justice system, they form close working partnerships with VA and Veterans’ organizations.

A Veteran’s participation in treatment court is always voluntary. Veterans who choose to participate are assessed by a mental health professional and their treatment needs are determined.

Most Veteran participants receive treatment through VA’s health network, although some courts also work with Veterans who are not eligible for VA care. Those Veterans receive care from community health providers.

While Veterans Treatment Court allows the Veteran to remain in the community while undergoing treatment, a judge regularly checks on the Veteran’s progress. If the Veteran fails to meet the requirements of the program — for example, if he or she fails drug screenings or disobeys court orders — the Court will impose sanctions which may include community service, fines, jail time, or transfer out of Veterans Treatment back to a traditional criminal court. Research shows that treatment court judges are motivators who provide ongoing encouragement to participants as they undertake the difficult work of recovery.

VA’s Veterans Justice Outreach Works with Courts

VA is committed to the principle that when mental illness plays a role in a Veteran’s involvement with the criminal justice system, both the Veteran and the community are better served by treating the Veteran’s mental illness rather than merely incarcerating him or her. The Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO) program exists to connect these justice-involved Veterans with the treatment and other services that can help prevent homelessness and facilitate recovery, whether or not they live in a community that has a Veterans Treatment Court.

Each VA Medical Center has at least one designated justice outreach specialist who functions as a link between VA, Veterans, and the local justice system. Although VA cannot treat Veterans while they are incarcerated, these specialists provide outreach, assessment and linkage to VA and community treatment, and other services to both incarcerated Veterans and justice-involved Veterans who have not been incarcerated.

VJO staff work with the courts to help eligible justice-involved Veterans get mental health assessment, treatment planning, and referrals to VA services.

Specialists communicate with officers of the court about Veterans’ compliance with VA treatment programs, and they may also assist in training law enforcement personnel on issues such as PTSD or traumatic brain injury.

For information and a list of VJO contacts, see the Veteran Justice Outreach Initiative website.