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Veterans Treatment Court: Guide to Court Diversion Programs

Veterans treatment courts are designed to help provide treatment resources to veterans who have a substance use disorder, mental health disorder, or both.1 These courts were first created in 2008 by Judge Robert Russell, after he noticed a high number of veterans appearing on his dockets who had substance use disorders or mental health disorders.1 Treatment courts are designed to increase public safety while helping give veterans a structured and safe environment while seeking recovery for substance abuse and mental health disorders.

Table of Contents:

What is Veterans Treatment Court?

A veterans treatment court is a rigorous program that calls for personal accountability while seeking to break the cycle of drug use and criminal behavior.1 By participating in a veterans treatment court, veterans have the opportunity to work through substance abuse and maintain recovery.

Veterans are at a higher risk for substance use disorder compared with civilians, with one in ten veterans struggling with substance abuse.2 The statistics are even more worrisome for veterans who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom. One of every six of these veterans experience a substance use disorder.3

Substance use disorder is also associated with a higher prevalence of mental illness.4 People with one condition often have the other condition as well.4 In other words, these disorders are often co-occurring. When a veteran returns from service and experiences one or both of these types of conditions, without receiving appropriate treatment services, they are at risk for entering the criminal justice pipeline.3 This is why the veteran treatment courts were first developed.1 Through this court program, veterans receive needed help, and the public has fewer safety issues due to criminal behavior.1

How Does Veteran Treatment Court Work?

A treatment court program works with a specific veterans-only docket.1 This is essential in the success of the program because it takes into consideration veterans’ special circumstances. Instead of issuing sentences that punish veterans for criminal activity, veteran treatment courts target the veteran’s medical disorders and provide programs and support that get to the root of the problematic behavior.1 Treatment courts also put veterans in an environment with their peers.1 When veterans have support coupled with substance abuse treatment, they can move forward in recovery.

In a veterans treatment court program, veterans will be required to attend regular treatment sessions, appear before the court, and undergo random drug testing.1 This allows veterans to participate in a highly structures and disciplined program, not dissimilar to the way the military functions.

What Crimes Do They Cover?

Veteran treatment courts address petty misdemeanor crimes that don’t involve sexual or violent components. For violent crimes, veterans may need to serve time in jail.

In a veterans court program, a judge will regularly check on the veteran’s progress. If they fail a drug test or don’t comply with an aspect of the treatment regimen, they may have to pay a fine or serve jail time.

Effectiveness of Veterans Treatment Court

A veterans treatment court effectively assists veterans who would otherwise fall through the cracks. Statistics on veterans treatment courts include:5

  • Treatment court participants have consistently lower recidivism rates than regular court participants.
  • A study of over 22,000 veterans found that participants were better equipped to find housing and employment compared to other veterans in the criminal justice system.
  • One study showed that veterans treatment court participants had increased improvements in mental health, overall functioning, and social connectedness.
  • Research reflects that a veterans treatment court program resulted in 10% more participants in stable housing.
  • Veterans treatment courts may result in 12% more veterans receiving VA benefits.

What Are the Pros & Cons of Veterans Treatment Courts?

Veterans may want to weigh the pros and cons of a veterans treatment court if they have struggled with substance use disorder, mental health disorder, or both. Understanding the benefits or downsides can help you decide whether you want to enter into this type of program. The pros are obvious. You avoid jail time and also get treatment for underlying problems that you are facing. One potential hurdle for vets is that they will have to be accountable to others. They will need to check in regularly and undergo drug testing. Further, while over 40 states have veterans treatment courts, some do not, possibly restricting access for veterans.6

Eligibility for Veterans Treatment Court

Court eligibility criteria may differ from state to state. However, all veterans’ treatment courts follow a similar framework. If a veteran is facing a criminal charge, they can check to see if they meet court admission requirements.2 If they do, they will be provided an opportunity to complete a customized treatment program and avoid incarceration.2 Alternatively, they might receive a reduced sentence.2

Do I Need VA Benefits for Treatment?

When you connect with the veterans’ treatment court, they will link you with the benefits and resources you need for treatment.3 If you have VA benefits, they can ensure that you are properly connected with the right help from start to finish.

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  1. Office of National Drug Control Policy. (n.d.). Veterans treatment centers.
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019, October 23). Substance use and military life.
  3. Justice for Vets. (2021). What is a veterans treatment court?
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Comorbidity: substance use disorders and other mental illnesses.
  5. Tsai, J., Finlay, A., Flatley, B., Kasprow, W. J., & Clark, S. (2018). A national study of veterans treatment court participants: who benefits and who recidivates. Administration and Policy in Mental Health, 45(2), 236–244.
  6. National Center for State Courts. (n.d.). Veterans courts state links.