What is a Veteran’s Court?

Cindy Castillo FAQs

A few cities in Arizona have established Veteran’s Courts in order to focus on  rehabilitation and restoration for veterans who find themselves facing criminal charges.

The Facts:

There are over 140,000 veterans incarcerated to date. Veterans continue to come home with similar conditions to those of veterans who served in Vietnam. In 1958, 21% of all men in State Prison and 23% in Federal Prison were veterans–a direct legacy of Vietnam. Unfortunately, today, because of the negative connotations associated with PTSD and TBI, many veterans are not seeking the help they need to succeed as members of the community. As a result, more veterans are finding themselves in trouble with the law. As noted by Eric Shinseki, of the Veteran’s Association,

“if we are going to break the cycle between incarceration and homelessness, we will have to raise our level of collaboration and leverage all our assets to address these factors, which seem so pervasive when dealing with troubled Veterans—depression, insomnia, substance use disorder, pain, and failed relationships.”

Thus, to better assist veterans in the criminal justice system, Judge Robert Russell created Veteran’s Court in 2008.

Courts Focus on the Root Cause of Veteran’s Behavior after their Return Home:

In the Arizona cities that have adopted Veteran’s Court through Judge Russell’s guidance, veterans and the State work together to individualize treatment that includes rehabilitation, counseling and education for veteran success in the community. Veteran’s Court provides services that will discover the root cause of a veteran’s behavior and ensure specific programs are provided and mandated by the Court in order to address these behaviors. Veteran’s Court (where offered)  is a voluntary program that includes regular court appearances, and all veterans who have served in the United State’s Armed Forces, who are experiencing treatable behaviors, are eligible. As of this writing, the only known Veteran’s Courts in Arizona are Maricopa County Superior Court, Phoenix Municipal Court, Coconino County Superior Court, Pima County Justice Court, Lake Havasu City Consolidated Court, and Tucson Municipal and Regional Municipalities. There are many more Veteran’s Courts opening in the east valley. Stay tuned for more details!

Serious inhibiting factors veterans face such as PTSD and TBI affect everyone in society as the number of incarcerated veterans grows. With longer episodes in Iraq and Afghanistan, Veterans of Operation New Dawn, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom are facing serious issues. A shocking one in five veterans have some type of mental health or cognitive impairment. Most commonly, veterans face substance and drug abuse addictions with 19% of current conflict veterans that have been diagnosed with such dependencies.

Veterans Today:

As compared to veterans of past wars, veterans today are unwavering about keeping post-war conditions such as homelessness, substance abuse, and mental illness concealed. Vietnam veterans made it a point to bring awareness of their struggles to the public because a great majority of the public did not agree with the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War also arguably gets more visible attention because it was a ground war versus wars today, which are fought mostly from the air. This could be a contributing factor to why Vietnam veterans and OND/OEF/OIF veterans are so different. According to a study in 2011 by Health Care for Recent Veterans (HCRV),

“Today’s veterans are not as likely to be homeless as past veterans, and are more likely to be married and to have professional careers.”

It seems, from these facts, that today’s veterans are determined to lead “normal” lives. However, this may not be possible given their experiences.

About 38% of returning veterans are released with less than honorable discharge, which may disqualify them for VA benefits. Without these benefits, many veterans find it difficult to find work, and this could lead to serious symptoms of situational depression, or it could inflame pre-existing depression, bipolar disorder or other mental illnesses. Soldiers of war are not prepared to come home to poverty, lack of VA benefits, and the loss of power, status and control the military yields. As a result, many veterans turn to alcohol or drugs to self medicate for these emotional and discouraging circumstances.

HCRV studies show that one in six veterans from theatres of Iraq and Afghanistan have an alcohol or drug dependency. 81% of arrested veterans have substance abuse problems. 43% of veterans go un-treated for mental illness and substance abuse issues.

Moreover, mental illness could have been a pre-existing condition for a veteran. War could exacerbate these conditions, and then the veteran returns home with a worse condition than before. Research from HCRV suggests that pre-military factors are more important than combat exposure in predicting antisocial behavior and incarceration. The military trains soldiers to have quick violent reactions because they will be facing constant firefights and other extremely dangerous situations. With this training ingrained into their behavior, they return home with very dull senses. If the veteran is dealing with dull senses, quick violent reactions, and pre-existing conditions of mental illness, it can lead to criminal activity and potential criminal charges very easily.

Another cause of criminal behavior stems from Traumatic Brain Injury. Fire fights and other actions that might cause concussions and damage to the brain are regular occurrences during a veteran’s time in the military. Research has found that criminal activity can be tied to Traumatic Brain Injury. This type of defense should not be discounted when a Veteran is entered into the criminal justice system, and is trying to decide if he or she should enter Veteran’s Court.