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Congress approves bill giving federal support to veterans treatment courts

A bill that would help give a second chance to veterans who’ve committed nonviolent crimes has moved to the president’s office to be signed into law.

The Veteran Treatment Court Coordination Act of 2019 (H.R. 886) directs the Department of Justice to create a program that would provide funding and technical assistance to state, local, and tribal governments with veterans treatment courts or the intent to begin one.

Such courts specifically address the problems that veterans face, similar to the way a drug or mental health court provides treatment rather than punishment.

“We’re not out to punish. This is a treatment and rehab court. We’re here to identify illnesses and conditions. We’re here to get veterans well,” VTC advocate, mentor, and retired Army Col. DJ Reyes told Military Times.

One in five veterans has symptoms of a mental health disorder or cognitive impairment, Justice for Vets reported, citing a RAND report. Combat-related mental illnesses and substance abuse have also been found to be closely linked.

As a result, the primary purpose of a VTC is not to punish, but rather to identify, treat and rehabilitate those disorders or conditions incurred while in military service that could have contributed to subsequent criminal behavior, said Reyes. Examples include substance/opioid/alcohol abuse, PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, or military sexual trauma.

“The desired outcome is a VTC graduate who is seamlessly transitioned back with his or her loved ones, and the local community, as a positively impactful citizen,” he said. “We as a society owe nothing less to this commitment in support of our veterans.”

Luis Quinonez, a Vietnam vet and head of the National Veterans Court Alliance who worked with policymakers to gain support for the bill, agreed.

“Veterans who have served overseas and in combat have a unique set of problems,” Quinonez said

Veterans participating in such programs also meet regularly with judges and veteran mentors who provide advice, information, and accountability.

“If we’re going to send our men and women, our sons and daughters, to war and they come back broken, it’s our obligation to help them to find their way back,” said Reyes, who helped to found a VTC in Tampa, Fla. and now volunteers as a mentor.

Introduced by Rep. Charlie Crist, a Democrat from Florida, on Jan. 30, 2019, the bill to provide federal assistance to VTCs received bipartisan support and was unanimously consented to in the House on Monday. Before becoming a law, the bill must be signed by President Donald Trump.

“Our veterans sacrificed to keep us safe. They have earned our support and understanding for the unique challenges they often face,” Crist said.

The VA reported the existence of at least 551 veterans courts in June 2018. Programs like the one in Tampa have seen great success, but they’re funded by local governments and don’t currently have federal assistance in structuring their programs. As a result, the eligibility criteria and methods for treatment vary from court to court.

This bill would change that, asking the Justice Department to work with the secretary of defense and attorney general to make available grants, technical assistance, and information on best practices for running a VTC.

The Veteran Treatment Court Coordination Act of 2019 would have the federal government provide funding and guidance to courts that offer veterans rehabilitation and mentoring instead of punishment. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
The Veteran Treatment Court Coordination Act of 2019 would have the federal government provide funding and guidance to courts that offer veterans rehabilitation and mentoring instead of punishment. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The two biggest challenges that stand in the way of this bill, Quinonez told Military Times, are funding and a lack of understanding.

“We have some members of Congress who felt that we were creating a new court system, they didn’t understand that, when we thought of veterans courts, we don’t really mean courts. We mean dockets. What they are is they set aside an afternoon or a whole day to address veterans’ issues. It is done in the same courtroom by the same judges,” Quinonez said.

They had initially hoped for $5 billion in funding for the program, Quinonez said. This may seem like a lot, he added, but the VA reported that there are more than 700,000 veterans in some phase of the criminal justice system.

Quinonez estimated that each of those veterans costs the government between $30,000 and $40,000.

Because of the lack of understanding and national debt concerns, the bill was only allocated about $20 million, Quinonez said, which will go towards starting programs in nearly 8,000 different courts.

Funds will also go to the Department of Justice to set up a point of contact and federal guidance for VTCs.

“That’s the driving force behind this bill: to nationalize and federalize the program so that we can provide federal funding to enable all 50 U.S. states to establish their own VTC programs,” Reyes said.

Quinonez hopes that the Justice Department’s guidance will recognize the uniqueness of veterans’ issues and work with law enforcement to reach veterans before they have a criminal record.

“As long as we’re able to include the mental and emotional assistance programs, then we’ll be able to make a difference,” he said.

The many supporters of the bill show that officials involved in the criminal justice system feel similarly. Quinonez said he’s worked with multiple members of congress, senators, state supreme court justices, and the National District Attorneys Association, among others, to let the stories and input of those whose daily lives involve veterans treatment in the judicial system affect the legislation.

“At the end of the day, we want to keep them out of jail, get them in treatment, and then get them back into the community as impactful citizens, taking the burden off the community, criminal justice system, and law enforcement,” Reyes said.

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