Pennsylvania Establishes Regional Veterans Treatment Courts 

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By Hannah Schaffer, Features Editor

Veterans face significant challenges reacclimating to life after the military. Many veterans suffer combat related injuries or mental health disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression. 

“Nobody understands what [veterans have] experienced,” said Dr. David Lane, professor of counseling in the College of Professional Advancement at Mercer University.[1] “[Veterans] come home, and everybody’s treating you just like the person that left home a year ago, but you’re not that person anymore.”[2]

Research suggests that there is a connection between military service and criminal justice involvement.[3] These connections have been found to stem from “traumatic experiences during military service, and medical, mental health, or substance use disorder conditions related to military service.”[4] Additionally, health conditions commonly caused by military service, such as traumatic brain injuries, are associated with some criminal behaviors.[5] The Center for Military Health Policy Research reported that “one in five veterans has symptoms of a mental health disorder or cognitive impairment,” and “one in six veterans who served in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom suffer from a substance use issue.”[6]

Treatment courts are holistic intervention programs that help move people with substance abuse and mental health disorders from the justice system and into recovery.[7] These courts began in the 1980s when justice and treatment professionals realized that failing to treat substance abuse and mental health “perpetuated a vicious cycle of relapse and recidivism.”[8] These courts focus on the promotion of education, employment, housing, and financial stability.[9]

In addition to drug and mental health treatment courts, veterans treatment courts have also been established. Veterans treatment courts are based on the model used for drug courts.[10] These court programs provide “intensive, treatment-based, veteran focused court supervision programs” to veteran offenders.[11] Program participants “come before judges on a regular basis, receive support and guidance from veteran mentors, are supervised by specialized probation officers, and receive treatment and support from the Veterans Administration to address underlying problems often caused by post-traumatic stress disorders.”[12]

As of 2019, citizens who had served in the military comprised 4.4 percent of all U.S. citizens sentenced in Federal Courts.[13] The United States Sentencing Guidelines authorizes judges to consider an offender’s prior military service when determining an appropriate sentence.[14] Since veterans treatment court judges handle numerous veterans’ cases, they have a better understanding of veteran issues such as substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, and military sexual trauma, and can therefore proscribe treatment that will better end the cycle of relapse and recidivism.[15]

Judge Robert Russell established the United States’ first veterans treatment court in January of 2008, after he noticed an increase in the number of veterans appearing on his docket and saw their struggles with substance abuse and mental illness.[16] The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says that “the primary purpose of a [veterans treatment court] is not to determine whether a defendant is guilty of an offense, but rather to ensure that he or she receives treatment to address unmet clinical needs.”[17]

Justice for Vets has also reported that participation in veterans treatment courts allows veterans to process their experiences with their fellow veterans, therefore “re-instilling the sense of camaraderie they felt while in the military.”[18] Additionally, these courts provide veterans with resources such as volunteer veteran mentors that can help provide motivational support, treatment scheduling, support to ensure that the veteran is receiving the appropriate disability compensation,  educational opportunities, and training benefits.[19]

Terms set for a veteran sentenced through the veteran court docket may include conditions such as consistently meeting with probations officers and attending alcoholics anonymous or narcotics anonymous, if deemed necessary.[20]If a veteran fails to meet the conditions proscribed by the veterans treatment court, their cases can be returned to the regular court system.[21]

Pennsylvania has the fourth-largest veterans’ population in the United States, with approximately 800,000 veterans.[22] United States veterans account for nearly 7.5% of Pennsylvania’s adult population.[23] Unfortunately, nearly 6.5% of Pennsylvania’s veteran population lives in poverty, and approximately 121,746 Pennsylvania veterans live in homes that have at least one major problem, whether that be quality, crowding or cost, and approximately 977 Pennsylvania veterans are homeless.[24]

The first Veterans Treatment Court in Pennsylvania was established in Lackawanna County in 2009.[25] Over the past 13 years, Pennsylvania has established 25 county veterans court programs.[26]

In November, Huntingdon County President Judge George Zanic announced his intent to establish a regional veterans treatment court that includes judges from Huntingdon, Blair, Clinton, Juniata, Perry, Clearfield, Centre, and Mifflin Counties.[27]

“Veterans treatment courts open the door to new opportunities for court-involved veterans,” Zanic said.[28] “Far too often, individuals find themselves in our courtrooms feeling defeated and as if hope is lost.”[29]

“Too often we see veterans in smaller counties falling through the cracks of the system, simply because they never knew there were options available to them…by establishing this new regional court, we’re giving veterans in rural parts of the state the same chance at a positive outcome as those in the more metropolitan areas” said Judge Michael Salisbury of Clinton County.[30]

However, the establishment of veterans treatment courts has raised some questions within the judicial system.[31]For example, the American Civil Liberties Union has objected to the creation of veterans courts because it offers veterans opportunities that are not provided to others.[32] Concerns about veterans using their military service as “a catch-all excuse for crimes” have also been raised.[33] Additionally, since the veterans courts are relatively new, there is little research on the effectiveness of these specialized courts. 

Another issue with veterans treatment courts is that in many states, these specialized treatment courts are only located in more urban parts of the state, and some states do not offer any form of veteran court programs at all.[34]

Eric Gonzales, who faced a maximum of nine years in prison for assaulting a police officer while under the influence, had to relocate to utilize a veterans treatment court because there was not one available near his home in San Bernardino County, California.[35] The veterans treatment court program helped Gonzales receive the necessary mental health resources, get sober, and finish his education.[36] However, even though Gonzales had to move away from his friends and family, he still speaks highly of his experience.[37]

“When I say [the veterans court program] changed my life, I mean it,” Gonzales said.[38]

[1] Jennifer Falk, Combat veterans may face mental health challenges. Here’s how to support them, The Den, (November 11, 2021).

[2] Id.

[3] Andrea Finlay, Mandy Owens, Emmeline Taylor et al., A scoping review of military veterans involved in the criminal justice system and their health and healthcare, BMC, (April 8, 2019).

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Justice for Vets, (last visited April 19, 2022).

[7] The National Association of Drug Court Professionals, (last visited April 19, 2022).

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] American Legion, supra. 

[11] Veterans Treatment Courts, The Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania, (last visited April 19, 2022).

[12] Id.

[13] United States Sentencing Commission, Federal Offenders Who Served in the Armed Forces, (October 2021).

[14] Id.

[15] Justice for Vets, supra.

[16] Veterans Treatment Courts, American Legion, (last visited April 19, 2022). 

[17] Veterans Treatment Courts and other Veteran-focused courts served by VA Veterans Justice Outreach Specialists, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2021). 

[18] Justice for Vets, supra.

[19] Id.

[20] Matthew Wolfe, From PTSD to Prison: Why Veterans Become Criminals, The Daily Beast, (July 11, 2017). 

[21] Id.

[22] Department of Human Services, (last visited April 19, 2022).

[23] Supporting Veterans in Pennsylvania, Housing Assistance Council, visited April 19, 2022). 

[24] Id.

[25] Pennsylvania Courts Announce Intent to Create Regional Veterans Treatment Court, Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, (November 10, 2021). 

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Pennsylvania Courts, supra.

[31] Wolfe, supra.

[32] Id.

[33] Id.

[34]Joseph Darius Jaafari, Special Courts for Veterans Languish, The Marshall Project, (February 19, 2019). 

[35] Id.

[36] Id.

[37] Id.

[38] Id.

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