Serving Our Country to Serving Time: The Rise and Value of Veteran Treatment Courts
By Michael Pittaro and John Russ
“Leave No One Behind…Regardless of the Battlefield” – California Veterans Legal Task Force
Since 2001, more than 1.8 million troops have been deployed to support military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other areas experiencing conflict. Our country’s military members have had to endure more than a decade of constant sacrifices—physically, psychologically, emotionally—for which they have served valiantly. As a result, veterans who have witnessed or experienced traumatic incidents are often victims of injuries that are not visible to the naked eye. Such injuries can hamper adjustment to civilian life the same as visible wounds.
The Connection Between PTSD and Criminal Behavior
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can occur after someone goes through a traumatic event like combat, assault, or disaster. According to a U.S. Department of Defense article, nearly half of all veterans report having frequent outbursts of anger and other symptoms of PTSD. In the same article, an additional 220,000 service members were diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Research supports a strong correlation between criminal behavior or risk-taking behavior and those who suffer from TBI and/or PTSD. These disorders can adversely influence a veteran’s ability to control behavior and can lead to impulsivity, disinhibition, anger, and aggression.
Unfortunately, such behavior can contribute to veterans violating the law. As a result, some are formally charged, prosecuted, and sanctioned by our nation’s criminal justice system even though it is clear that their criminality stems from distorted and irrational thinking clouded by the trauma of serving in combat.
The Legacy of PTSD in Veterans
This is not a new problem in our country. Brockton Hunter, a Minnesota-based attorney who represents veterans charged with crimes, noted that in the wake of the Vietnam conflict, hundreds of thousands of veterans returned home to a largely hostile American public. These veterans were stigmatized and many discarded when their psychological disorders led to criminal behavior.
More than 30 years later, a disproportionate number of Vietnam veterans remain incarcerated, homeless, and dependent on drugs or alcohol. Countless families have been destroyed, jobs lost, and taxpayer dollars spent on treatment services that surfaced far too late to make a significant difference.
When viewed within a criminal justice context, this is particularly tragic because early exposure to the criminal justice system could have been used as an opportunity to intervene before it escalated to more serious criminal offenses.
The Value of Veteran Treatment Courts
According to the organization, Justice For Vets, crimes involving veterans have increased with every major conflict in history. Rather than resorting to incarceration, veteran treatment courts have been created to provide the criminal justice system a way to respond proactively by assisting veterans rather than punishing them.
Offenders agree to participate in programs (therapeutic counseling, mentoring, medical assistance/referrals, social support) established by the court as opposed to incarceration. Of course, there are conditions and expectations that must be met by program participants and failure to do so could result in prison.
Some statistics on veteran treatment courts:
- Pennsylvania currently leads the nation with the highest number of veteran treatment courts.
- 7,724 veterans had come before veterans treatment courts, according to Veteran Court Statistics report in February 2013
- On average, veterans are under court supervision for 15-18 months
- For those who are no longer under court supervision, 69 percent finished treatment successfully
- Of the 31 percent who did not complete treatment, the majority voluntarily withdrew from the program or were dismissed for failing to comply with treatment court provisions.
- Of the total pool of veterans who have been in veterans’ treatment courts, 3,883 are still undergoing treatment
- Most treatment courts accept both misdemeanor and felony cases, though almost none accept serious felony defendants, such as veterans charged with weapons assault or murder
The veterans’ treatment court movement is still evolving; however, as a country, we are moving in the right direction by accepting that combat experience has resulted in a growing number of veterans with mental health disorders and cognitive impairment. While society cannot ignore lawlessness, most would agree that society is indebted to these brave Americans for their unwavering commitment and service to our country.
About the Authors:
Professor Michael Pittaro is a 27-year criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders in a variety of settings. Pittaro has lectured in tertiary education for the past 13 years while also serving as author, editor, and subject matter expert. He is currently pursuing a PhD in public safety/criminal justice at Capella University’s School of Public Safety Leadership.
John Russ is a law enforcement veteran with 25+ years of criminal justice experience. His career includes assignments in corrections and patrol with the majority of his work centered on major-case investigations. Until attending polygraph school in 2009, John was a robbery/homicide detective for 10 years, involved in a number of local high-profile cases. He is currently a licensed polygraph examiner for a local law enforcement agency, with interests in deception detection and forensic psychology. He intends to graduate from American Military University in the fall of 2015 before moving onto a master’s degree program. His career and educational goals would not be possible without the support of his family, especially his lovely wife of 26 years.
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