LAMP Feature

Cook County's Effort to Provide a Veterans Track within the Domestic Violence Court for Chicago

Domestic violence is a serious public health concern among the veteran population, and our country cannot afford to ignore it or the veterans who require assistance overcoming serious mental issues resulting from combat. Since 2001, the United States has sent nearly two million soldiers to serve in the Global War on Terror. As soldiers return home, the country is seeing a devastating surge of individuals suffering from serious mental illnesses like post–traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and from traumatic brain injuries. Research shows that mental illnesses arising as a result of service or combat correlate with increased criminal behavior, substance abuse, and domestic violence. Besides causing negative physical and psychosocial outcomes to victims, domestic violence can be extremely costly. A 2009 article, Intimate Partner and General Aggression Perpetration Among Combat Veterans Presenting to a Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Clinic, published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry (Taft, et al.) estimated that domestic violence results in a loss of almost 10 million days of paid work per year, and medical costs of over $4 billion per year.

The prevalence of mental health illness, and the troubling corresponding rate of criminality and substance abuse among veterans, has prompted legislative and judicial intervention. The first veterans' treatment court began in Buffalo, New York in 2008. Today there are nearly 90 veterans' treatment courts across the country, with more on the way. The general observation about these veterans' treatment courts is that they generate a lower rate of re–offense and a higher return on financial investments than with traditional courts.

But, with few exceptions, there is a glaring omission from these treatment courts: veterans convicted of crimes of violence (including domestic violence) are ineligible. This limitation blocks the door to many of the veterans whose crimes are most significantly tied to combat trauma and PTSD. Tiffany Cartwright's 2011 Stanford Law and Policy Review article "To care for him who shall have borne the battle": the recent development of veterans courts in America, explains that many soldiers suffering from PTSD remain hyper–vigilant and respond to everyday threats with violence. Further, in 2010 the American Bar Association adopted Resolution 105A, wherein it urges states, local, and territorial courts to facilitate the development of Veterans Treatment Courts. The ABA Resolution and Report recognized that many veterans suffer from paranoia and feel the need to carry a weapon (which, by definition under most state laws, turns their offense into a violent offense).

The veterans treatment court in Illinois is no exception to the problem. The Illinois Military and Veterans Act identifies a "critical need" to "create specialized veteran and servicemember courts or programs with the necessary flexibility to meet the specialized problems faced by these veteran and servicemember defendants" (330 ILCS § 135/5). In keeping with this "critical need," the Illinois General Assembly created the Veterans and Servicemembers Court. Under the Veterans and Servicemembers Court Act, veterans are eligible for the court's procedures provided that, among other things, the individual has not been convicted of a crime of violence within the past ten years, including any offense where serious bodily injury occurred (730 ILCS § 167/20). The Illinois General Assembly has, thus, undermined its own clear intent to provide a system that accounts for service–related mental illnesses by excluding the countless veterans who have been convicted of crimes of violence, including domestic violence.

The Cook County State's Attorney's Office's solution is to create a veterans track within the Domestic Violence Court for Chicago. Planners of the program expect its implementation in early 2013. The program is premised on the belief that a veterans track will provide veterans convicted of domestic violence with much–needed specialized considerations that parallel those in the veterans' treatment courts across the country. The veterans track within the Domestic Violence Court for Chicago will likely include many of the best practices observed across the country's veterans court program, which are as follows: deferred sentencing, housing assistance, and vocational training; voluntary participation; veteran mentors; case managers; information sharing with the VA; daycare; family counseling; transportation assistance; education assistance; and partnerships (e.g., with the court, VA, public agencies, and community–based organizations).

While the details of Cook County's program are not finalized, planners of the program envision that it will also have characteristics similar to the few veterans' treatment courts in the country that accept violent offenders, including domestic violence offenders: the San Diego Veterans Treatment Court, the Orange County Combat Trauma Court, and the Hennepin County Veterans Treatment Court. (An October 2012 story on "60 Minutes" covered a veterans program within the court system in Harris County in Texas. That program also appears to accept violent offenders, but the details relating to that program's characteristics are limited.).The San Diego, Orange County, and Hennepin County programs are all voluntary, include drug/substance abuse testing, veteran mentors, and a treatment team; share information with the VA; provide access to housing assistance and family counseling; and have formed partnerships with the court, the VA, public agencies, and community–based organizations. Only one (Orange County) also provides access to vocational training, transportation assistance, and education assistance.

Hennepin County's system is unique in that it does not require a nexus between military service and domestic violence. That is, there is no requirement that, as a threshold matter, an offender must be involved in domestic violence only as a result of combat; he or she is accepted even if he or she was involved in domestic violence prior to service. Hennepin County's primary consideration is whether the program will be beneficial to the participant. If so, the participant is eligible. Hennepin County is finding success in treating veterans and reducing the rate of veteran–related domestic violence with this approach.

Unlike Hennepin County, but consistent with the majority, Cook County's program will likely include a process whereby a psychiatric fellow at Northwestern Memorial Hospital will evaluate veterans to determine whether there is a nexus between the veterans' domestic violence and combat. Veterans are eligible only where the psychiatric fellow observes a nexus.

Additionally, following the lead of San Diego, Orange, and Hennepin County, planners of the Cook County program have gauged its jurisdiction's political climate and have considered how it may impact the program. In San Diego, program administrators are in the process of gaining trust among battered women's advocates to earn referrals of domestic violence cases to the treatment courts. Much of Hennepin County's success has been due to passionate community supporters, including battered women's groups, who understand the goals and benefits of a treatment court. Planners of Cook County's program have identified relevant stakeholders and have ensured they are at the planning table. The planners envision that the program will include collaboration with the VA, the Cook County State's Attorney's Office, area public defenders, the Cook County Adult Probation Department, the Veterans Legal Support Center and Clinic at John Marshall Law School, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and, importantly, the victim advocate community. The victim advocate community's seat at the planning table is essential to guarantee the program satisfies the concerns and fears of victims; that is, victims have a voice in the planning process to ensure the program holds offenders accountable and aims to prevent future violence.

Cook County's creative veterans track within the Domestic Violence Court for Chicago is a groundbreaking solution to the restrictions inherent in the Veterans and Servicemembers Court Act, and in many statutes across the country that limit eligibility to nonviolent offenses. Other jurisdictions should observe the implementation and, likely, success of this program, and look to Cook County as a model for their own programs.

Carly Everett, J.D., M.P.A., is an Associate Attorney practicing complex commercial litigation at Segal McCambridge Singer & Mahoney, Ltd. in Chicago, Illinois. Ms. Everett obtained her J.D. from Indiana University and her M.P.A. from the University of Colorado.