Some former service members who appear in Judge Ricardo Rigual’s Virginia courtroom are given a choice: Go to jail or commit to getting their act together under the guidance of other veterans.

Those who choose the latter are set free, given a mentor and required to pay the judge regular visits.

It’s not exactly a get-out-of-jail-free card; Rigual describes the program as “intense supervision.” But advocates say this gentler approach gaining steam in courtrooms across the country has helped many veterans get back on their feet without the stigma of incarceration.

“They have the foundation to be successful — to take charge of their lives again,” said Rigual, a presiding judge in the 15th Judicial Circuit of Virginia. “We just kind of remind them what they need to do to get their lives back on track.”

Now, federal lawmakers are looking to expand these types of veterans treatment courts, which operate much like drug courts and other specialty courts for veterans who have committed crimes that can, in many cases, be traced back to struggles with PTSD, TBI and other issues related to military service. A bipartisan group of 112 representatives in the House have introduced a plan to provide federal support to states that have adopted these programs by setting up a national network with oversight from the Department of Justice.

Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., who introduced the Veteran Treatment Court Coordination Act, told Military Times in an email that the bill would “expand and bolster” these courts to provide veterans with the counseling, care and support services needed to transition into civilian life. Another bill Crist worked on, which also needs final House approval, sets aside $25 million in grants and technical assistance for these programs.

According to figures provided by the advocacy group National Veterans Court Alliance, there are more than 450 veterans treatment courts in 22 states. Nearly half are in Florida alone.

Rigual and other members of the Alliance met in Washington on Wednesday with House representatives and White House staffers to advocate for the bill’s passage, sharing anecdotes of how these courts have saved lives.

Veterans who go through the rehabilitation program are assigned a mentor to help them navigate the transition — things like applying for jobs or securing housing or VA benefits, if eligible. DJ Reyes, a retired colonel who runs one of these programs in Florida, said many of the mentors are combat veterans who have struggled with transition themselves.

“We get it. We walked the mile in the moccasins,” he said. “That’s the secret, the X-factor, the secret sauce piece to this. Because the mentors can relate so quickly with the veterans that they’re assigned to, many times … that veteran mentor is able to help navigate that veteran back to wellness.”

Reyes’ program has helped more than 175 defendants with an estimated 82 percent to 85 percent success rate.

With more funding, support and a national network formed to share best practices, these courts could be even more effective, and more states would be motivated to start them, alliance members said.

Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., speaks to members of the National Veterans Court Alliance on Capitol Hill Wednesday about his bill to bolster these programs across the country. (Natalie Gross/Staff)
Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., speaks to members of the National Veterans Court Alliance on Capitol Hill Wednesday about his bill to bolster these programs across the country. (Natalie Gross/Staff)

While this bill does not require states to stand up veterans treatment courts, the alliance is advocating for that and would eventually like to see these programs at all levels of the American court system — from district courts all the way to federal courts. They also want each veteran graduate get their criminal records expunged.

Alliance Chairman Luis Quiñonez said, “It’s a tough nut to crack because a lot of people ask why should veterans get special treatment? And the answer is because a lot of veterans face things that other people don’t have to face.”

Crist was optimistic that the Veteran Treatment Court Coordination Act will see a Senate companion soon and get passed by the end of the year.

“With overwhelming support from members of Congress and veterans organizations, I hope we can quickly move this legislation forward to better support our veterans,” he said. “It’s what they have earned, and what they deserve.”