For nearly 30 years, drug courts – sometimes called “recovery courts” have offered a treatment alternative to jail for criminal defendants who are addicted to drugs and alcohol. More recently, local court systems across the U.S. have been developing a new type of recovery court, tailored to meet the needs of military veterans with substance abuse and-or mental health problems.
The first veterans recovery court was started in 2008 in Buffalo, N.Y., as part of the Erie County Court system. It provides a civil court to try cases involving veterans who have problems related to their service in the military.
Veterans treatment courts perform functions similar to those of drug courts, offering some offenders, usually those charged with relatively minor crimes, the option of a treatment program instead of incarceration. The courts provide treatment and mentoring that is designed for vets and often provided by other veterans. The treatment deals with substance abuse and mental health problems that often lead to crimes committed by veterans.
Veterans’ recovery courts are an extension of the drug court model, says Chris Deutsch, spokesman for Justice for Vets, a division of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.
“The key difference is that the VA is part of the team, making direct referrals to treatment, making sure vets get connected to the benefits they have earned, also bringing in vet service organizations to help with claims, housing needs or employment,” Deutsch told The Influence.
They also use volunteer vets from the community to serve as mentors. The mentor-vet relationship is not therapeutic or clinical, Deutsch says. “They are there to offer support, vet to vet; it really helps vets in the program get comfortable and accept help and feel that they are in a place that really understands what they have been through.”
The veterans court concept is “based on a real recognition of what it means to serve and what issues can arise from service, and a real sense of camaraderie from all of the people who are there to help each other out,” Deutsch says. “Vets thrive when surrounded by other vets and see that its OK to accept the help that’s being offered.”
Veterans who are not eligible for VA services are not automatically excluded from recovery court participation, Deutsch points out. Some courts help them arrange and pay for treatment without VA benefits.
Justice For Vets has helped establish more than 200 veterans treatment courts and trained over 3,000 court staff. In addition, Justice For Vets has conducted 16 volunteer veteran mentor boot camp training, serving 1,000 veteran mentors representing 125 communities across 30 states.
The Comprehensive Addiction & Recovery Act (CARA)—which President Obama signed into law in late 2016 — provided grant funding for establishing or enhancing drug courts and veterans courts. The bill funded grants of up to $400,000 over 36 months for local courts, and up to $1.5 million to states for statewide drug court coordination.