Drug Treatment Courts in Spotlight at Recent Conference on Substance Abuse & the Criminal Justice System
Drug Treatment Courts in Spotlight at Recent Conference on Substance Abuse & the Criminal Justice System  | NADCP, Annual Training Conference, Justice For Vets, Veterans Treatment Courts, Veterans Treatment Court Summit, Gil Kerlikowske, 2012 National Drug Control Strategy, Matt Seiner, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury

Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy Gil Kerlikowske discusses the support of the Obama Administration for Veterans Treatment Court during a press conference at the NADCP conference in Nashville. Photo courtesy of NADCP.
“Tell it to the Judge.”

This admonition is quickly becoming effective healthcare advice for American service veterans who have been charged with crimes or who suffer from a diagnosed substance abuse and/or mental health disorder.

Nearly one-fifth of the homeless population in the United States is veterans. Among our nation’s vets, substance abuse is pervasive … often with mental health problems that lead to criminal behavior. In fact, recent statistics show for every five veterans, one has symptoms of a mental health disorder of cognitive impairment. One-in-six veterans who served in Operation Enduring Freedom or Operation Iraqi Freedom suffers from a substance abuse issue.

In 2008, Robert Russell, a judge in Buffalo, N.Y., noticed an increasing number of veterans on his court's docket, which led him to create the first court specialized and adapted to meet the needs of the men and women who have served their country in the military and now suffer from addiction or other mental health disorders. Veterans have long fought for an alternative justice system that takes their wartime trauma into account.

Largely independent from the federal government, the rapid growth of Veterans Treatment Courts has been sparked by the recognition of judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and legislators that a significant number of veterans are returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with mental health issues, which often manifest in criminal acts at all levels. In the last three years, more than 98 Veteran Treatment Courts have sprung up across the country.

There is new realization that steering the former soldiers toward the treatment they might have initially rejected could benefit society in the long run. The specialized courts help veterans regain the discipline and camaraderie they had while in uniform by turning to mentors who have also served in the military and by helping troubled veterans get counseling, links to government benefits, and direction to a more positive course.

This unique approach to working with veterans who have gotten off track was on display at the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) 18th Annual Training Conference, held at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville from May 30 to June 2.

The NADCP conference is the largest in world on the subjects of addiction, mental health, and the criminal justice system. Attendees at this year's conference, “Where Accountability Meets Compassion,” included more than 4,000 state and federal justice leaders, celebrities, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, clinicians, police and probation officers, military veterans, business owners, Drug Court graduates and their family members.

On May 30, NADCP’s Justice for Vets hosted the Veterans Treatment Court Summit. While most veterans are strengthened by their military service, combat experiences have left a growing number of them afflicted with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury. Research continues to draw a link between substance abuse and combat-related mental illness. Left untreated, mental health disorders common among veterans could lead to involvement in the criminal justice system.

The Veterans Treatment Court model requires the former soldier to appear for regular court appearances, as well as mandatory attendance at treatment sessions and frequent and random testing for substance use.

Veterans Treatment Courts are tapping into the distinct aspects of military and veteran culture and using it to the benefit of the veteran. Through these unique courts, those who served in the nation's Armed Forces are allowed to participate in the treatment court process with their fellow veterans, re-instilling a sense of the camaraderie they felt while on active duty. The Veterans Treatment Court simulates the military unit: the judge becomes the commanding officer, the veteran mentors become first team leaders, the court team becomes the company staff, and the veteran defendants become the troops.

For anyone who has spent time in a regular courtroom, a visit to a Veterans Treatment Court can be eye opening. Veteran defendants stand before a judge at parade rest, and say, “Yes, ma'am,” or No, sir,” and there is interaction and support from their fellow veterans.

Veteran Treatment Courts act as a “one stop shop” linking veterans with the program benefits and services they have earned. For instance, the courts have a Veteran Health Administration's justice outreach specialist present during the court sessions who is equipped with a laptop computer and able to access confidential medical records, make treatment appointments, and communicate this information to the court.

Other veteran services provide representatives and contacts, while volunteer veteran mentors offer morale and support. Since they are not employed by the criminal justice system, these team members normally would not be present in the courthouse. Consolidating justice-involved veterans onto a single docket permits the mentors to actively serve as representatives to support those who need their help.

Additionally, the NADCP conference featured more than 175 educational sessions. Speakers included some of the country’s most highly respected industry professionals, including U.S. Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, and West Huddleston, chief executive officer of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

At a press conference held during the NADCP meeting, Kerlikowske announced the Obama Administration's support for Veterans Treatment Courts, noting the specialized court exemplifies the administration’s 21st century approach to drug policy, which is focused on improving the health, safety, and wellbeing of individuals and communities across the nation.

He pointed out that a group of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and clinical professionals created the Drug Court movement as a common-sense approach to improving the justice system by using a combination of judicial monitoring and effective treatment to compel drug-using offenders to change their lives, and, ultimately adopt the broader “problem-solving court” principles taught in law schools and utilized in everyday court practice throughout the country.

Justice for Vets Director Matt Stiner said, “It is critical that we bring everyone involved in Veterans Treatment Court together so that we can address critical issues, learn from one another, and ultimately ensure that no veteran is left behind.”

On the closing day of the conference, Huddleston joined a panel of national experts for the discussion, “Reconstruction After the War on Drugs,” outlining the future of drug policy in the United States.