Veterans Treatment Court

The blog was dormant yesterday in honor of Veterans Day. Belated thanks to those who have served. [Editor’s note: Including Jamie, who was a captain in the Air Force before law school.]

This time last year saw the opening of North Carolina’s first veterans treatment court in Harnett County. The governor and other leaders attended the opening ceremony. A year later, the court is graduating its first class today. Other veterans courts are coming online across the state. Cumberland’s court gets underway this week, and others are planned in Durham, Buncombe, and other counties—primarily those that are home to the state’s larger VA medical centers.

What exactly is a veterans treatment court? Like other specialty and therapeutic courts, veterans courts are part court, part program. They are designed to focus on the special circumstances—post-traumatic stress, substance abuse, and other mental and physical illnesses—that can lead some former servicemembers into contact with the criminal justice system. The court operates as a team, with judge, prosecutor, defense lawyer, probation officer, law enforcement, and others working with a court coordinator to take a collaborative, problem-solving approach to each defendant’s case. Defendants consent to a system of graduated sanctions in response to certain types of noncompliance and rewards for achieving certain milestones. Programmatically, the court serves as a hub for the various healthcare, treatment, housing, and educational benefits available to many former servicemembers through the VA and other sources.

A key feature of the court is that defendants appear before it frequently—about every other week initially—in an effort to provide a sense of structure and accountability familiar to those who have spent time in the military. Each participant is also assigned a veteran mentor, on the theory that servicemembers respond best to those with similar backgrounds and experiences.

Legally, veterans treatment courts are probably therapeutic courts as defined in G.S. 7A-272(f)—“a court, other than drug treatment court . . . , in which a criminal defendant, either as a condition of probation or pursuant to a deferred prosecution agreement under G.S. 15A-1341, is ordered to participate in specified activities designed to address underlying problems of substance abuse and mental illness that contribute to the person’s criminal activity.” If that is correct, then G.S. 7A-272(e) and -271(f) would answer some jurisdictional questions about whether certain proceedings should be held in district or superior court. Thus far, money for North Carolina’s veterans treatment courts has come from a grant from the Governor’s Crime Commission.

Though called veterans treatment courts, the courts are not strictly limited to those who meet all of the requirements of the federal definition of “veteran.” See 38 U.S.C. § 101(2) (requiring active military service and a discharge or release under conditions other than dishonorable). The only requirement in North Carolina is that the defendant has prior military service. In fact, it is envisioned that participating defendants who received an other than honorable discharge might, though volunteer counsel, be able to seek a discharge upgrade, which could open the door to additional benefits and services.

It’s easy to cheer for veteran’s treatment court. Few are against providing smarter and more effective justice for those who have borne the battle, to paraphrase Lincoln’s second inaugural address. But you could reasonably ask why this model, if it works, should be limited to those with military service. Part of the answer is a matter of resources; there is not enough time to process every case in this manner, and not every defendant will have access to the type of services that are available to veterans at taxpayer expense. Nevertheless, it’s good to see experimentation and innovation in the court system. The best and most effective parts of veterans courts and other specialty courts may extend to a broader range of defendants over time.