Shinseki Calls 'Vet Courts' a Success

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki
Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki on Monday praised judges, prosecutors, defenders, veterans, and an army of counselors and mentors across the country for their efforts on behalf of veterans who end up in the criminal justice system.

"Instead of either jailing veterans who have been brought up on charges or releasing them back to the streets, you have underwritten treatment as a powerful option for dealing with those who have broken our laws," Shinseki told the first ever Veterans Treatment Court Conference in Washington, DC. 

The Washington conference, which runs through Wednesday, is expected to bring about 1,000 people who work in the criminal justice system and veterans affairs for a series of workshops and information sessions.

Since 2008, the number of veterans' treatment courts across the country has grown from about four to nearly 80. 

Part of the VA's role in the system is to provide veterans justice outreach specialists that work directly with court officials to ensure that vets in the court system, or already in jail, get the VA care they need and also give the courts support.

The VA currently has 172 VJO specialists serving 36,000 veterans, he said. The VA expects to hire another 75 specialists in 2014. 

The courts are a "hybrid" of mental health and drug treatment court programs, but specifically aimed at veterans, said Judge Brian MacKenzie, a district court judge in Michigan. 

A major difference between the veterans courts and other substance abuse or mental health treatment programs available through the criminal justice system, he said, is that veterans courts are open to people who have committed violent offenses.

Other programs occasionally may take in a person charged with a violent crime, but they're few and on a case-by-case basis, he said. He said many of those are funded by grants with the stipulation that they are not open to violent offenders.

According to MacKenzie, studies have shown that the success rates for violent offenders who enter treatment programs are not statistically different from others.

"Violence is not an indicator of success [in the program]," he said.

This is important for veterans because a great many that end in the criminal justice system are there for a violent offense -- in many cases domestic violence, Mackenzie said.

The muscle behind the program is the requirement a veteran has to get into and keep up treatment once he or she volunteers to accept veterans' treatment court rather than jail. That begins with abstinence from alcohol and drugs, with the exception of prescribed medications, MacKenzie said.

Of the many veterans he has entered into the program only two have ever come before him again charged with a crime, he said.

For many, the problem is a mental health issue compounded by self-medicating -- alcohol or drugs -- which causes them to further spiral down, hurting themselves, their families and others and at some point running afoul of the law, he said.

The veterans' treatment courts are not about creating a separate justice system for veterans, but about getting veteran offenders access to resources that are already available to them, he said.

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