Alternative Sentencing Programs: Veteran’s Courts

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A recent Newsweek presents a compelling insight into the changing landscape of crime punishment in America.  The complete article is available here.  The article discusses the arguments for and against specialized treatment of veterans in the criminal justice system.  As a veteran of both the United States Army and the criminal justice system, I am an advocate of specialized courts in general and Veteran’s Courts in particular.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 10% of convicted criminals in the United States are veterans. Our men and women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have witnessed and survived experiences unlike any other.  Upon their return home they are left to adapt to civilian life without adequate resources or support.  It is estimated that as many as 50% of our veterans suffer from PTSD and other mental disorders.  Many seek comfort in drugs or alcohol instead of professional assistance.  The stigma associated with such a diagnosis impedes treatment and promotes self-medication.

The results include involvement with the criminal justice system which only serve to enhance the cycles of self-destruction.  This cycle perpetuates itself with acts of violence, abuse, and addiction.

The Newsweek article references a Denver Westword News article (available here) in which Robert Alvarez is quoted. Dr. Alvarez is a psychotherapist with the Wounded Warrior program at Fort Carson.

The violent offenders need help more than anybody … the very skills these people are taught to follow in combat are the skills that are a risk at home.

The survival skills associated with combat and the training required of our service members to intentionally engage in violence are not simply “switched” off upon their return home.  The physical and psychological price paid by these honorable warriors is deserving of our compassion.  They willingly and courageously placed their lives in jeopardy for our freedom, is that not worth something?

Specialized courts, especially Veteran’s Courts, are not without opponents.  The American Civil Liberties Union is particularly vocal in their opposition on the grounds that the special treatment of veterans may give a free pass to those involved in criminal activity.  While this argument is not without merit, specialized courts are hardly a “free pass” to criminal activity.  They are a proven alternative to retributive justice models where incarceration is the norm.

As the Newsweek article concludes:

Perhaps the inevitable conclusion here is the one nobody wants to say out loud: we have known for years that treatment works better than incarceration when it comes to criminal defendants with drug and mental-health problems. We also know that close supervision and monitoring work better than casting our most vulnerable citizens adrift.

Creating specialized courts for veterans will no more create a tiered justice system than drug or mental health courts do. The experiences and needs of veterans are unique and are not adequately addressed without professional intervention. Something that is not effectively achieved without targeted services.

Veterans have earned this specialized treatment.  Their families deserve  it.  Freedom, theirs and ours, depend on it.  It is unconscionable that we would forget or neglect the willing sacrifice of so many and cast our veterans to the prisons to be forgotten, especially when we know that specialized courts work.