Wednesday, June 09, 2010

A NATIONAL CALL TO ACTION: A Campaign for Justice For Veterans

Veterans Diversionary & Treatment Courts

An appropriate alternative to incarceration for Veterans

By Jan Ruhman
Operations Coordinator

Ed Note:  A prototype of this article was originally published in the Spring 2010 Edition of the VVAW newspaper, The Veteran. With updated research data, it has been revised and is presented here on our pages, in it's revised form.  It is different in the courts approach, and in this scenario kicks in at the moment a Veteran is charged, long before conviction.  This ensures that prior convictions can't be used to prevent Veterans from being diverted to Veterans Court. WH

Each and every day in cities and municipalities across the United States of America recently returned Iraq and Afghanistan Combat Veterans as well as veterans from other wars come into contact with our nations “first responders”, Police and Firefighters, resulting from a criminal offense. Many of these veterans suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a direct result of their service to our nation. We believe that their service to our nation and its resulting mental health issues must be taken into consideration both “before” trial and at sentencing.

Under existing law, in many jurisdictions, if a “convicted” defendant was a member of the military forces of the United States who served in combat and who suffers from substance abuse or psychological problems resulting from that service, the court may, under specified circumstances, order the defendant committed to the custody of federal correctional officials for incarceration for a term equivalent to that which the defendant would have served in state prison.

A law enacted in California in the 1980’s, expressly for Vietnam Veterans, granted prosecutors and judges considerable discretion in considering a veterans military service in combat and its resulting PTSD only at time of sentencing. On August 31, 2006 Governor Arnold Swartzenager signed into law Assembly Bill No. 2586 which extended that discretion to veterans of all wars.

However, with no formal Veterans Court System in place to direct veteran offenders to prosecutors and judges rarely take into consideration a veterans military service or its resulting PTSD. In fact, prosecutors, more often than not, make motions to exclude from trial the veterans military service, their time served in combat and their PTSD diagnosis and, more often than not, judges grant the motions. Effectively stripping the veteran of any hope of mounting an effective defense in helping to explain and mitigate the circumstances of the crime committed.
The Scope Of The Problem
A RAND Corporation study, dated April 17, 2008 concluded that one in five Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans suffer from PTSD or major depression.  

  • Nearly 20 percent of military service members who have returned from Iraq & Afghanistan – 300,000  in all – report symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder or major depression, yet only slightly more than half have sought treatment.
  • In addition, researchers found about 19 percent of returning members report that they experienced a possible traumatic brain injury while deployed, with 7 percent reporting both a probable brain injury, current PTSD, or major depression. 
  • PTSD problems are likely to worsen if the Veteran has served multiple tours, resulting in inadequate home time between deployments, increasing combat stress rates by as much as 50 percent.
Many service members said they do not seek treatment for psychological illnesses because they fear it will harm their careers in and out of the military.  But even among those who do seek help, only about half receive treatment that researchers consider “minimally adequate” for their illnesses.
In the first analysis of it’s kind, researchers estimate that PTSD and depression among returning service members will cost the nation as much as $6.2 billion in the two years following deployment – an amount that includes –both direct medical care costs for lost productivity and suicide.  Investing in more high-quality treatment could save close to $2 billion with-in two years by substantially reducing those indirect costs,the 500 page study concludes.
No Veteran comes home from war unchanged.  But with early intervention and treatment most can revoer and lead a productive and healthy life.  A key piece of the puzzleis establishing Veterans Diversionary & Treatment Courts in every state, county, city and municipality, so that Veterans receive the help that they need in healing from the war.

Veterans Diversionary & Treatment Court

A Veterans Diversion Court, modeled on the courts established in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Buffalo, New York, would instead provide that if a person is charged or convicted of a criminal offense and alleges that he or she is a veteran and committed said offense as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, or psychological problems stemming from service in the United States military, the court shall, prior to trial and sentencing, hold a hearing to determine whether the defendant was a member of the military forces of the United States who served in combat and shall assess whether the defendant suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, or psychological problems as a result of that service.
If the court finds that the defendant’s actions resulted in a crime being committed as a result of one of those factors related to serving in the military, then the court may “divert” the offending veteran to the Veterans Diversion and Treatment Court and hold the conviction in abeyance while placing the veteran on probation and ordering the veteran into a court supervised treatment program run by the VA or another Court Approved Program if VA assistance is not easily available due to distance to the facility from the vets home.
(a) Any person convicted of a criminal offense who would otherwise be sentenced to county jail or state prison and who alleges that he or she committed the offense as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, or psychological problems stemming
from service in a combat theater in the United States military, (b) If the court concludes that a defendant charged with a criminal offense is a person described in subdivision (a), and if the defendant is otherwise eligible for probation and the court places the defendant on probation, the court may order the defendant into a local, state, federal, or private nonprofit treatment program for a period not to exceed that which the defendant would have served in state prison or county jail, provided the defendant agrees to participate in the program and the court determines that an appropriate treatment program exists.
In San Diego a small but dedicated group of military attorneys, VA & community mental health professionals, police, judges, public defenders and prosecutors has been working on establishing a Veterans Diversion and Treatment Court to make certain that former and current members of the U. S. Military get a fair shake from the Legal System by taking into consideration their military service and their need for help in healing from the hidden wounds of war when they come home.
It is our responsibility, as veterans, to speak with force and conviction to our elected representatives at all levels of government and to help them see the wisdom in taking care of the troops when they return home from war. The task of mounting a national campaign is done at the community level by activists’ and community organizers but the funding comes from many sources.

  • Ask your Congressperson to “reintroduce” and support H.R. 7149, originally  introduced September 26, 2008,  to provide “funding grants for states and local municipalities to help establish Veteran Diversion and Treatment Courts ”.
  • Ask your Senator to “reintroduce “and Support S. 3379, originally introduced July 31,2008, to provide “funding grants for states and local municipalities to help establish Veteran Diversion and Treatment Courts ”.
I encourage you to organize in your county or city with the goal of establishing Veterans Diversion and Treatment Courts in every state, county, city and municipality (a few people can make a huge difference), do community outreach and hold public forums to educate the public and other veterans of the need. Meet with your elected representatives to discuss this and other critical issues affecting  veterans nationally and locally, and if you don’t get the respect or the support from your elected officials that veterans with PTSD deserve call them on it, write letters to the editor,  hold a press conference and picket outside of their offices. And above all do not be discouraged……you can and you do make a difference.
Jan A. Ruhman is a Marine Corps Veteran of Vietnam. He was an activist member of VVAW in the 1970’s in Los Angeles and Southern California and is the San Diego Contact for VV AW. He is a founding member of the Banished Veterans Defense Committee. He is also a member of Veterans For Peace in San Diego and is the Operations Coordinator for a blog run by former members of the U.S. Military with the intent to publish the critically important voices of veterans. He can be reached by email at  or by phone at 858-361-6273.