Congress Eyes New Office For Veterans Courts

By Andrew Kragie | November 3, 2019, 8:02 PM EST

Under a bipartisan bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives last week, specialized criminal courts for military veterans facing minor charges could get a dedicated office in the U.S. Department of Justice to coordinate grants, training and other assistance — with $25 million expected in new funding.

The Veteran Treatment Court Coordination Act would direct the attorney general to set up an office that will help state, local and tribal governments start or maintain the courts, which often allow low-level offenders to avoid criminal penalties if they complete a rehabilitation program or get treatment for mental health issues or substance abuse.

The three-page bill passed the House of Representatives on Oct. 28 in a voice vote, meaning that individual “yeas” and “nays” were not recorded. On Thursday, the Senate passed a separate funding bill that had made it through the House earlier this year.

The proposal’s sponsor, Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., said he drew inspiration from his St. Petersburg-area district.

“We are blessed in Pinellas and Pasco counties to have a gold-standard veterans treatment court program that offers life-saving and life-changing second chances to non-violent veterans caught in the criminal justice system,” Crist said in a statement.

“Many communities, however, are not so fortunate, and veterans are going without access to this critical support. … With this legislation, we will expand and bolster existing veteran courts, while helping communities without one set up their own," Crist added. 

The measure’s lead co-sponsor, New York GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik, said in a statement that veterans merit special consideration after “the stressors and psychological impact of their service.” The bill had another 134 cosponsors of both parties.

By diverting some offenders from the criminal justice system, specialized diversion courts also may save money on incarceration. Local governments also save when the programs succeed in stabilizing “frequent flyers” who take the time and resources of first responders. Other rehabilitation-oriented diversion programs focus on juveniles or people with serious mental illnesses.

The first veterans treatment court started in 2008 in Buffalo, New York, according to the National Center for State Courts. They generally offer substance abuse and mental health treatment along with mentorship from a fellow veteran.

There are more than 460 such courts across the country, according to a peer-reviewed study by U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs experts published last year. Typically lasting six to 12 months, the programs most commonly serve veterans with charges related to public disorder, driving under the influence and drug use.

Data on nearly 8,000 participants between 2011 and 2015 found a majority reported signs of substance abuse, while about a third had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. The study found some improvement in the proportions with housing and VA benefits along with a lower-than-expected recidivism rate.

Of course, a DOJ office can only award grants if it has funding.

Crist got $25 million for veterans courts included in an appropriations bill that passed the House earlier this year and easily passed the Senate on Thursday. The funding should be secure once the president signs the bill, H.R. 3055.

A Crist spokeswoman, Samantha Ramirez, told Law360 that the proposed Veteran Treatment Court Program would operate within the DOJ's Office of Justice Programs and work in a similar fashion to the existing Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

A centralized office will administer any funding Congress passes for veterans courts, support existing programs, aid start-up efforts and report on best practices across the country.

"This will help communities who want to start a vet court get vital information and institutional knowledge," the spokeswoman said in an email. "Oftentimes, it’s just a few people in the community, like social workers and local veterans organizations, trying to do this all on their own."

To become law, the bill creating the office must also pass the Senate and get the president’s signature. Crist said he hopes to see a version pass the upper chamber “in the coming months” but did not identify a Senate sponsor; his spokeswoman said several senators' offices have expressed interest and said Crist is "very hopeful" the measure will become law.

--Editing by Philip Shea.

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