Veterans Treatment Courts play crucial role

They’re called Veterans Treatment Courts, a little-known part of the judicial system that deals specifically with military veterans crippled by stress, drugs and the memories of war.

The specialized courts can be found around the country. But only 12 of California’s 58 counties have this service for veterans.

An Assembly Republican would like to change that.

Like conventional courts, the Veterans Courts deal with crime and punishment. But they also are specialized drug- and mental-health courts that link veterans who are struggling with addiction, mental illness, and other disorders to treatment, health and veteran-specific services.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimated in 2013 that 22 veterans commit suicide very day.

“I can go on and on about the need if you want me to,” says Assemblymember Devon Mathis, R-Visalia. “If Veterans’ Courts weren’t in place,” he added, at-risk veterans are “just going to slip through the cracks.”

Mathis and other supporters say the courts are effective and successful in taking into account the veterans’ illnesses in properly resolving cases.

Mathis is carrying a bill, AB 1672, that requires the state Judicial Council, the administrative body of the California court system, to report to the Legislature on the need for the Veterans Courts and the impact on veterans in counties without them. Mathis’ measure is in Assembly Appropriations.

Among other things, the Judicial Council would study program outcomes in counties with veterans’ courts, look at existing veterans’ services and the degree to which veterans are involved in the local criminal justice systems.

“We should study statewide the current state of affairs instead of going forward and say this is what we should do,” said Southern California businessman B. Wayne Hughes, Jr.

Hughes created a ranch in San Miguel that provides a recovery program for returning veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other maladies, and he is familiar with California’s prison system through his involvement in The Urban Ministry Institute, among other projects.

 “The hardest part is not a lot of veterans know how to connect to the services.”

Hughes will be funding half of the study Mathis’ bill proposes, which carries a $200,000 price tag.

“We’re losing whole communities. It’s a bad thing,” Hughes said. But, he added, “that doesn’t mean people who do bad things get a pass.”

But for those who committed low-level crimes, they should be “granted credit for serving their country,” Hughes said.

The bill is supported by California’s public defenders. There is no opposition, according to the Assembly staff.

There is little doubt that the emotional and mental afflictions of many veterans caught up in the criminal system are serious: The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimated in 2013 that 22 veterans commit suicide very day, and Hughes said two out of five service men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are coming to California.

Veterans often don’t realize that services are available.

“The hardest part is not a lot of veterans know how to connect to the services,” Mathis said.

“I think we ought to be able to move this forward,” he added. “We’re not asking the state to pay all of this,” Mathis said. “We’re saying there’s really a problem here, and we’re going to split the bill.”

Ed’s Note: Corrects study’s cost to $200,000, instead of $400,000, 11th graf.

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