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February 10, 2012

Veterans courts getting lots of attention in Florida

The growth of veterans courts to deal with criminal offending by former servicepersons is one of the most intriguing structural criminal justice developments in recent years.  This recent local article from Florida, headlined "Veterans Court headed to Broward County," spotlights how this innovation is developing in the Sunshine State.  Here are excerpts (which include some interesting data):

Led by [Chief Judge Peter] Weinstein, the 17th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida is forming a Veteran’s Court division in Broward, designed to provide rehabilitative services to veterans facing criminal charges. The hope, much like drug courts, is that vets can avoid jail or prison through comprehensive, court-monitored programs that address the underlying issues, which are often related to post traumatic stress disorders.

The opening is part of a larger movement to help vets across Florida. Legislation that would allow the establishment of separate courts for veterans was unanimously passed in House Appropriations Committee. The chief judge in each judicial circuit would be allowed — but not required — to create a vet court. Two similar bills are making their way through the Senate.

“We just wanted to make sure the state was aligned so we can open vet courts if needed for vets here and those soldiers returning. We need to recognize the stress of the battlefield and help them rather than lock them up in jail and throw away the key. We want to make sure they get the assistance they need without letting them off the hook,’’ says Rep. Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee. “The vet courts already in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties would serve as models.’’

With its planned Broward opening this year, South Florida will have three courts available to the region’s nearly 287,000 veterans along with the thousands of whom are expected to return from Iraq and Afghanistan as the United States continues its military pullouts. “These soldiers are coming home to rebuild their lives and some will have difficulties. Often the horrors of what they saw at war can end up playing a heavy role in their conduct," said Weinstein. “They served this country and we want to treat them with respect and get them the help they need. We have tremendous resources to help to put them back on the right track. We want this to be a therapeutic court."...

“So many soldiers come home strengthened by their service and ready to re-engage in their communities and others will struggle. The sad fact is that we know the courts are often an entry point in the system, but once there, we want to make sure the soldiers receive the services they earned and need," says Chris Deutsch, spokesman for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, a membership training and advocacy organization for drug and vet courts.

So far, there are 88 vet courts — the first opened in Buffalo four years ago — and more than 100 in the planning stages.

Veterans, while no more likely to be arrested than those in the general population, account for nine out of every 100 prisoners in United States jails and prisons, according to a 2008 report of The Center for Mental Health Services’ National Gains Center. Up to 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan wars veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs....

Weinstein stressed the court is not designed to offer preferential treatment to vets or deprive them of their due process; rather, it’s intended to guide them into existing Veteran Administration substance-abuse and mental-health programs. Those charged with crimes will gather in court on a designated day where they can meet with representatives from the VA to access benefits and be placed in the appropriate rehabilitative programs, which typically lasting at least a year....

In November, 2010 Circuit Court Judge Ted Booras, a former Marine, began presiding over vet court in Palm Beach County, home to 115,000 vets, the largest population in Florida. Between November and last October, he heard 281 cases ranging from cocaine possession to petty theft to traffic violations.

Of those cases, 187 were misdemeanors; 94 were felonies. A total of 201 veterans were referred to the court; of that amount, 193 were engaged or re-engaged with VA and 53 successfully completed the court requirements. And the cost of pretrial incarceration was reduced by 73 percent because many of the vets did not end up in jail. Another 43 were referred back to the criminal division.

A similar veteran’s track opened in March as part of the Miami-Dade Drug Court after Judge Deborah White-Labora visited a vet court in Anaheim, Calif., three years ago. “At first I was very skeptical on how or why they should be treated differently. Once I got there, I saw about 10 vets walk in and they were very serious about getting help," she recalled. “I learned about what was out there to help them and I was impressed and knew we should try to open something here."

February 10, 2012 at 09:05 AM | Permalink

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