By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
Since 2008, when the first veterans treatment court opened in New York, judges across the nation have been responding to the needs of veterans struggling to recover from the psychic wounds of war. There are now 120 veterans courts in 35 states, with 100 more in the planning stages, according to the nonprofit Justice for Vets.
The need is driven by numbers: About 1.2 million veterans are arrested every year, according to the U.S. Justice Department. Many are wrestling with addictions and mental illness, conditions that lead to an elevated risk of arrest.
Not everyone endorses the idea of a veterans treatment court. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, for example, has raised questions about the rights of defendants who must plead guilty as a condition to getting help.
In a recent Bloomburg News story, a retired Connecticut Supreme Court justice said rehabilitating ex-soldiers is the responsibility of political leaders and the military, not the courts.
But they’ve been welcomed in Indiana.
“We support programs that shift the focus of criminal justice from retribution to rehabilitation,” said Andrew Cullen, legislative liaison for the Indiana Public Defender Council.
Members of the Indiana Supreme Court, who oversee the certification process for the state’s problem-solving courts, echo that sentiment.
Justice Steven David, a 28-year military veteran, has said Indiana’s service members have done “more than their fair share for the rest of us,” and that it’s appropriate for the courts to consider the profoundly negative impact of the emotional stresses of war.
That’s what Chief Justice Brent Dickson believes as well. In a statement endorsing the courts, Dickson said judges are using their authority to make sure veterans are getting the help they need and deserve. “The men and women appearing in these veterans courts have served our country honorably, but have found their way into some sort of trouble, ” Dickson said. “ ... The trial court judges handling these cases seek to empower and enable these defendants to participate as valuable, contributing members of the community.”