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January 01, 2017

The ABA Is Working to Expand Veterans Treatment Courts and Veterans’ Legal Services

By ABA President Linda Klein

Phyllis, an elderly veteran, was disabled, homeless, and losing hope. She had lost her identification card and all her personal paperwork and, as a result, couldn’t apply for food stamps, housing, and other assistance.

But Phyllis went to Stand Down—a program providing food supplies, clothing, health screenings, and benefits counseling to homeless veterans. Legal Aid of Wyoming attorneys were there, and one helped Phyllis apply for a new Social Security card, a copy of her birth certificate, and a state-issued identification card. Her Legal Aid lawyer helped Phyllis access Medicaid, food stamps, and veterans’ benefits.

Phyllis is one of the lucky ones. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has estimated that almost 40,000 veterans are homeless. Veterans make up 20 percent of the male homeless population, while the fastest-growing homeless population in America is women veterans. And more than 13 percent of our nation’s heroes live near or below the poverty line.

Often veterans’ troubles are caused by legal problems—evictions, child custody disputes, and wrongful denial of benefits. In fact, a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs study found that at least half of the top 10 problems leading to homelessness among veterans are legal problems.

To help address this problem, the American Bar Association (ABA) has launched a major initiative to mobilize lawyers to ensure that veterans receive the legal assistance they deserve. The ABA Veterans Legal Services Commission is a multipronged, holistic effort being led by a distinguished 20-member commission headed by Nanette DeRenzi, a retired three-star vice admiral who led the Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, and Dwight Smith, a Tulsa, Oklahoma, attorney who has held several key leadership roles in the ABA.

The commission has ambitious goals, including

  • Employing medical-legal partnerships that pair Veterans Affairs (VA) facilities with lawyers to solve clients’ legal problems.
  • Engaging law schools and bar associations to promote legal-services incubators, and assisting those legal incubator programs, particularly in rural areas, to bring services to veterans while providing valuable training for new and underemployed lawyers.
  • Promoting legal checkups for veterans and their families and caregivers because many do not know the problems they have are legal ones.
  • Addressing the unique needs of female veterans and homeless veterans.
  • Creating a certification of law specialty on veterans’ legal issues.

In addition, an important component of our veterans initiative is promoting veterans treatment courts (VTCs) and exploring expansion of the concept to civil matters, such as debt collection and domestic relations. While the ABA is drawing on its members’ expertise to promote veterans’ legal services, it is also drawing lessons from the innovative efforts to help veterans taking place in courtrooms across the country.

Currently, 306 courtrooms in 37 states offer mandatory rehabilitation and medical treatment for veterans arrested for certain felonies or misdemeanors. They have the support of the American Judges Association, the National District Attorneys Association, and the National Sheriffs’ Association.

And the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs now mandates that every VA medical center have a veterans’ justice outreach specialist who provides legal assistance to veterans and supports VTCs in their region.

While VTCs are growing in prevalence, they are needed in even more states and even more court systems because they are effective and successful. According to data provided by Justice for Vets, an advocacy group that provides training for court staff, two-thirds of veterans who go through the system successfully complete their programs, and 88 percent of courts see a reduction in veterans’ arrests.

The Promise of Veterans Treatment Courts

Veterans treatment courts began in 2008 when Judge Robert Russell noticed the unique needs of veterans coming through his drug court in Buffalo, New York. So he adapted the drug and mental health court model to provide an alternative to the criminal justice system for veterans whose misdemeanor or felony stemmed from disorders arising from their combat experience (i.e., brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), sexual trauma, substance abuse, and other psychological disorders). The VTC set up by Judge Russell was designed to give veterans a chance to get their lives back on track by addressing the problems underlying their criminal behavior. The program emphasized jail diversion and therapy for trauma-specific conditions, such as PTSD and sexual assault. To aid that recovery, Judge Russell paired each vet going through the program with a mentor veteran to act as coach, role model, and advocate.

That first effort relied on the collaboration and coordination among the Western New York (WNY) Veterans Project, Buffalo Police Department, Buffalo Veterans Administration Health Care System, Buffalo Criminal Courts, Buffalo Drug and Mental Health Treatment Courts, Erie County Pre-Trial Services, the C.O.U.R.T.S. Program (Court Outreach Unit Referral and Treatment Service), and the Buffalo Veteran Mentor Group (a separate nonprofit organization).

Eight years later, the numbers in Buffalo speak for themselves: Recidivism rates for veterans in the area are just 5 percent, compared to 50 percent among the formerly incarcerated nationwide.

Because VTCs depend on a number of partnering agencies, startup and sustaining costs are low, but good coordination is important. The programs veterans participate in typically run 12 to 24 months and combine therapeutic treatment, social services, and judicial oversight. Participants meet regularly with their parole officers and attend court hearings to review their progress. Those who are making progress are encouraged, while those not fulfilling the program requirements are warned that they could be dropped from the program and face their original sentence.

At the beginning of the program, the emphasis is on maintaining sobriety and mental stability and showing up at all meetings. Individual therapy sessions, group counseling, and self-help meetings also are required, as are random drug or alcohol testing. Later, the focus shifts to reintegrating the veteran into society, including finding employment, locating a suitable living situation, and reunifying with family. The local VA office provides counseling resources for veterans in the program and coordinates services such as employment training and educational counseling.

VTCs got a national vote of confidence in September 2016, when the U.S. Department of Justice awarded more than $4 million to 13 state and local jurisdictions to develop their own programs. The grants this year will go to court systems in California, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Research Suggests Long-Term Success

The model is too new to provide research about such aspects as long-term recidivism, although some studies are underway. Still, so far, VTC outcomes have equaled or exceeded the outcomes from drug courts. This is believed to be in part because vets typically haven’t spent years cycling in and out of the criminal justice system. Because treatment is mandated in lieu of measures such as fines, probation, and jail time, veterans are quicker to buy into the program, where recovery becomes their mission. Most embrace the VTC setting and thrive in it.

A study published in the February 2015 Community Mental Health Journal looked at 86 veterans enrolled in a jail diversion and trauma recovery VTC program. They were interviewed at the start of the program and again after 6 and 12 months.

The study found that the VTC approach held promise for long-term success: “The structured, yet peer-driven environment of the VTC can provide a more tolerable path to recovery for many who otherwise would likely not have sought help,” it found.
Of the 86 participants, nine were rearrested during their time in the program. The study concluded: “The results suggest that veterans involved in Veterans Treatment Court programs experienced significant improvement in PTSD, depression, substance abuse, overall functioning, emotional wellbeing, relationships with others, recovery status, social connectedness, family functioning and sleeping.”

The study singled out the importance of “trauma-specific treatment, peer mentor services and medication” in achieving the outcomes. “A fundamental strength of the treatment court approach is its ability to hold participants accountable in seeking and complying with a treatment plan.”

Other figures may also demonstrate the success of Judge Russell’s noble experiment: According to a 2015 U.S. Department of Justice study, the number of veterans incarcerated in state and federal prisons and local jails decreased from 203,000 in 2004 to 181,500 in 2011–12. And in 2011–12, the rate of incarceration of veterans was lower than the rate for nonveterans.

The VTC model has served as an example for other vet-specific programs and services. For instance, in Orange County, California, both the Family Law Court dealing with domestic violence and the Department of Child Support Services have programs that specifically serve the needs of veterans coming before them.

The ABA has had a policy since 2010 urging “state, local and territorial courts to facilitate the development of VTCs, including but not limited to, specialized court calendars or the expansion of available resources within existing civil and criminal court models focused on treatment-oriented proceedings.”

The ABA Veterans Legal Services Initiative supports the efficacy, use of best practices, and expansion of VTCs.

We hope that even more court systems will institute the VTC model and consider expanding their scope.

Our nation’s veterans made a sacred commitment to die for us, for our country, in defense of our liberty. When our justice system fails these men and women, we must recognize that veterans also protect something near and dear to our profession: the just rule of law throughout the world. And we need to answer by invoking our own oath on their behalf. Through the ABA veterans initiative and your effort, we can help many more veterans get back on their feet and become contributing members of our society again.