Locked in a hyperpartisan presidential election-year stalemate, the largely do-nothing Congress at least has managed to pass legislation that will help steer veterans with mental health and substance abuse problems to court-supervised treatment programs instead of jail. We applaud this important criminal justice reform.
On Aug. 8, President Donald Trump signed the bipartisan Veteran Treatment Court Coordination Act of 2019 (HR 886), which requires the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Veterans Affairs to establish a federal Veterans Treatment Court Program, which will provide federal grants and technical assistance to enable state, local and tribal governments to develop and maintain veterans treatment courts.
“With this new law, thousands more veterans across the country facing the criminal justice system will have an alternative to jail time, ensuring they get the treatment they need,” said Rep. Charlie Crist, D–Fla., who introduced the bill in 2017 with Rep. Elise Stefanik, R–N.Y. The bill was co-sponsored by Virginia Reps. Rob Wittman, R–1st, and Abigail Spanberger, D–7th.
The new federal program, along with a $30 million appropriation to fund it, will support existing veterans courts at the state and local level that give troubled veterans accused of non-violent crimes a second chance to successfully transition to civilian life.
A study published in 2018 by the National Institutes of Health found that the concept works: The one-year recidivism rate for veteran court participants was nearly half that of other offenders.
Daniel Cortez, chairman of the Stafford County-based National Vet Court Alliance, which lobbied for passage of the federal bill, says his group is working to expand the concept to every county in the nation.
He noted that “in Virginia, we have seven [veterans court] dockets and seeing how 700,000 veterans are in some phase of the criminal justice system, and 20 to 22 vets a day are still committing suicide, this bill will literally save lives.”
The U.S. has a moral obligation to take care of those who fought to defend it. But this obligation has not always been met.
Providing a second chance for veterans who returned home from war with invisible wounds is a small, but important repayment of that overdue national debt.