Kansas Prosecutor Mag: Veteran Treatment Courts
Aug 01 2021
The Vietnam War was an ever-present reality during my teenage years. While I was too young to qualify for service at the time, many of my friends, neighbors and classmates were thrust into the war.
I still vividly remember the way veterans were treated after returning home. Many veterans were protested, mocked and ridiculed. I witnessed the psychological impact serving in combat had on many Vietnam veterans and how their service was often treated with scorn rather than gratitude.
Those memories impact how I carry out my role as a public servant in Washington and as the lead Republican on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. It’s one of the reasons why I have made improving the quality of life for veterans in Kansas and across the country one of my top priorities. There is no group of people I hold in higher regard than those who serve our nation.
During my time in Congress, as both a member of the House and Senate Committees on Veterans’ Affairs, I have seen how the wounds of war can impact the daily lives of those who have raised their right hand to serve this country. Research continues to draw a link between military service and both substance use disorder and mental health conditions. When left untreated, mental illness and substance use disorder, common among veterans, can directly lead to involvement in the criminal justice system.
The world has changed significantly since the end of the Vietnam War, but veterans still face challenges when returning home. The men and women who fought for our freedoms are among our greatest civic assets, strengthened by their experiences and skills from the military. Still, many of those deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan return with severe physical or mental health conditions, or far too often both.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the term ‘justice-involved veterans’ is used to describe former servicemembers who have been detained by or are under the supervision of the criminal justice system. Their involvement can range from arrest, to court involvement, to incarceration. More than half of justice-involved veterans have either mental health conditions—namely PTSD, depression or anxiety—or substance use disorders, such as alcohol, opioid or cocaine addiction.
The medical community has made impressive strides to treat these conditions, but these challenges continue to wreak havoc on the lives of veterans.
One means to proactively assist veterans in need is through Veteran Treatment Courts (VTCs), which are established at the local and state levels. Specialists, some of whom come from the VA, work with veterans who have been convicted of non-violent offenses. As part of a justice team in a VTC setting, experts understand that a veteran’s experience is different than a civilian’s. Participants who go before a VTC judge are regularly provided counseling, mentorship opportunities, substance use disorder services, as well as supervision by specialized probation officers and support from the VA as they re-acclimate into the community. This is all in a highly structured, veteran-centric environment, comfortable to those who served in the military and designed to reduce recidivism.
We have two VTCs here in Kansas. Johnson County established its VTC in 2016 and Wyandotte County just established one in June. More than 40 veterans have graduated from the program that serves veterans in the Kansas City area, and zero have re-offended. VTCs are tangible investments in those who served our country, and the results that we’ve seen across the country speak for themselves. One national study found that from program admission to exit, 10 percent more veterans were in their own housing and 12 percent more were receiving VA benefits. Notably, only 14 percent experienced a new incarceration. I have heard from other jurisdictions across Kansas that are interested in becoming affiliated with veteran-focused courts, and I hope to see more veterans in our state have this option available to them in the future.
Last year, while I was chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee with jurisdiction over funding for VTCs, Congress increased grant funding to establish these courts by 8 percent, totaling $25 million. Local jurisdictions will use these funds to establish VTCs across the country, and I hope to see these investments increase in future years. I challenge veterans, public servants and advocates to look into these grants to support veterans living in your community.
VTCs provide the type of support that veterans affected by mental health conditions or substance use disorders require. They offer counseling services, mentorship opportunities and substance use disorder treatment to support veterans rather than write them off.
Caring for those who have seen the horrors of war remains a civic duty that we must never abandon.