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  • Sarah Wilson

Veterans Treatment Courts: Diverting Veterans from the Criminal Justice System

Updated: Oct 23, 2023

The United States military collectively is inadequate at addressing the mental health concerns of the men and woman who proudly serve this country. Not only has the military stigmatized reaching out for help when mental illness becomes an issue, but also the military provides unnecessary obstacles to receiving treatment such as insurance coverage issues. Men especially in the military are made to feel “weak” if they seek treatment for mental health problems. Many veterans suffer from mental health issues that go untreated. Emotional trauma can cause a variety of mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and substance abuse. Additionally, veterans who suffer from PTSD are more likely to use alcohol and drugs. In fact, research suggests that the most indicative factor of future incarceration for veterans is substance abuse. Therefore, due to the emotional trauma associated with deployment and war and a lack of adequate mental healthcare, veterans frequently become involved in the criminal justice system upon their return to the United States.

United States military men and woman are expected to fight for their country and upon return to the United States easily reintegrate back into society as if nothing has changed. Unfortunately, serving in any military branch takes its toll on a large percentage of these men and women. More than half of the 2.6 million who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan came back with mental health issues related to their service. One in every six veterans struggles with addiction, and one out of every five are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These conditions when untreated, can lead to unemployment, homelessness, and involvement in the criminal justice system. As of 2014, there were approximately 21.8 million veterans of the armed forces in the United States. California, Texas, and Florida enjoy the highest population of veterans. Across the United States, 181,500 veterans were incarcerated in jail and prisons during 2011 to 2012. At one point, veterans incarcerated in the U.S. encompassed more than 24% of the inmate population; however, veterans currently make up about 8% of the prison population. Surprisingly, 55% of incarcerated veterans served in the United States Army, 20% in the U.S. Navy, 9% in the U.S. Air Force, and only 2% in the U.S. Coast Guard. Additionally, 43% of veterans incarcerated in prison reported being arrested four or more times. Yet, only 5% of veteran inmates were dishonorably discharged or discharged for bad conduct from their respective military branch. Although a small portion of veterans in prison received a negative discharge from their military branch, 24% of veteran inmates had some form of a military discharge that made them ineligible for veteran’s health care. Because of the growing epidemic of veterans coming into contact with the criminal justice system, specialized courts were formed to handle these cases.

In 2008 in Buffalo, New York, specialized drug courts, now more commonly known as veteran treatment courts (VTC), were formed to handle veterans who came into contact with the criminal justice system. There are currently about 114 VTCs operating nationwide, but many states do not have any VTCs. The purpose of these specialized courts is to provide the necessary treatment, accountability, structure, and benefits to U.S. veterans who come into contact with the criminal justice system. Additionally, VTCs have a veteran’s case docket which allows veterans to be surrounded by other veterans during court proceedings. In VTC, the judge who hears all veteran related cases is familiar with the uniqueness of emotional trauma associated with veterans. The VTC requires accountability and structure through mandatory sessions with a mentor and a real opportunity to get life back on track. The structure of regular court appearances, mandatory attendance at treatment sessions, and random drug/alcohol testing has a positive effect on most veterans because a set structure is familiar to someone with a military background. The first VTC was established by Judge Robert Russell in 2008, and it currently has a 98% success rate reducing recidivism among veterans. Without the necessary treatment provided through VTCs, veterans would have difficulty recovering and avoiding rearrests. If the 11,000 veterans who are currently getting treatment from VTCs were instead incarcerated in jail or prison, it would cost around $248 million to house those individuals. In contrast, for every individual diverted to a specialized drug court such as VTC, there is a savings of about $1,400. Additionally, there are other savings associated with specialized courts that can reach as much as $6,700. The total savings of drug courts and VTCs is about $8,000 for participants who go through the program and avoid traditional involvement in the criminal justice system.

In order to reduce the number of veterans who become involved with the criminal justice system and VTCs, leaders within the military need to proactively address mental health, and substance abuse issues within the military and educate all members on these important issues. Proactively addressing these issues, and reducing the stigma associated with requesting treatment is the best way to help the men and woman who serve in the military. Unfortunately, a proactive approach will not completely eliminate the problem, and therefore VTCs are necessary to address the remaining individuals who need help. VTCs provide effective treatment to veterans, but more funding is needed to continue the success of these specialized courts. Additionally, there needs to be more VTCs established in every state across the U.S.


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