LOS ANGELES—It was graduation day for a 70-year-old-plus veteran at the Orange County Combat Veterans Court on March 27. Telling his story, he said the first time he drank a beer was when he was in junior high school. He laughingly added, “And it was a party every night thereafter!”
Standing in the Veterans Court were two police officers, who both told a few stories of their encounters with this gentleman. Both were smiling as the audience laughed, though we could sense it had not been easy for them to deal with him over the years.
The veteran then pulled out a two-page statement and proceeded to tell about his life over 50-plus years as an alcoholic. He and his wife had been homeless during some of those years because of his drinking. She was there at his graduation, standing by his side. He thanked the court, his family, his mentor, and the VA for helping him finally conquer his alcoholism.
In the audience were more than 20 much younger non-violent veteran offenders with their volunteer veteran mentors.
After the celebration, each of the young offenders took his or her turn with their mentor by their side and reported to Judge Wendy S. Lindley their compliance with their program agreement. Lindley responded with very positive encouragement and compliments. This is not your typical justice setting. She complimented one veteran for his honesty in admitting a minor violation of his agreement with the court; the audience clapped with support as each veteran reported. This supportive activity is normal in these courts.
VA social workers also play a very critical role in coordinating this new treatment program. The VA funds the entire treatment program, while the local court enforces agreements it has with offenders and penalizes those who fail to meet that agreement. Complying with the agreement means not going to jail or prison.
The volunteer veteran mentors are also a key element in assisting the offenders.
According to an article in the Buffalo Sunday Express, Judge Russell of the Boston Veteran Court (the first such court in the country) had matched a discouraged veteran with a member of his court who was also a veteran. He said, “When they came back from a short meeting I saw straightaway that the veteran’s behavior had totally changed. He stood erect, [and] gave more open responses.”
“I thought it was very interesting that even the briefest meeting with another vet could have had this effect. So we discussed setting aside a day just for veterans. It was a unique idea.”
Nationally these Veteran Court programs use volunteer veterans as mentors. There are 88 such courts in the country.
The Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court in New York was started in 2008. A report issued in 2010 provides a glimpse at the effectiveness of these courts. Of the 300 veterans that completed the program during the first two years, the recidivism rate is zero—meaning no graduates had, to their knowledge, reverted back into their old habits and crimes.
The Orange County Combat Veterans Court has 48 currently enrolled veterans with a total of 89 enrollees since the program began.
Orange County’s Combat Veterans Court also started in 2008. The court has seen 22 graduates in the past two years with an average treatment period of two years. In discussing the differences in the number of graduates between the Buffalo and Orange County programs, the Orange County court only accepts veterans that were deployed (served in a combat zone), whereas the Buffalo court accepts all veterans, regardless of combat service.
Veterans that have seen combat duty tend to have more serious issues to deal with. A 2008 RAND study on combat-related “invisible wounds” indicates that one in five veterans have PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome) or TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury), or both, with major depression following deployment.
Worth the Money?
California Governor Jerry Brown returned, unsigned, a bill in August 2011 to help fund the expansion of Veteran Courts in California. His signed cover letter said, “While the provisions of this bill are well-intended, they create a clear expectation that our courts—already struggling with painful budget cuts—will establish a new program.”
Some question the additional costs involved in treatment and manpower to help these veterans, but looking at the numbers, it costs $49,000 per prisoner annually in California (excluding additional costs for prisoners over 55 years old) according to a Pew Center research report.
The Heritage Foundation has suggested combining both the drug courts and veteran court treatment programs to gain efficiencies, since many of the non-violent drug users are returning veterans.
Also, the effectiveness of the courts may suggest the costs are worthwhile: The Buffalo Veterans Court program reported an initial two-year zero recidivism rate, while the national general prison three-year recidivism rates are about 65 percent.