The Veterans Treatment Court: History, Eligibility & Admissions

Written by The Recovery Village

& Medically Reviewed by Dr. Kevin Wandler, MD

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Last Updated - 06/25/2024

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Key Takeaways

  • The first Veterans Treatment Court (VTC) was established in Buffalo, New York, in 2008 to address the unique challenges of veterans in the criminal justice system.
  • VTCs focus on rehabilitation and support for veterans with substance misuse and mental health issues, aiming to reintegrate them as productive citizens.
  • VTCs employ a multidisciplinary approach, including the use of veteran mentors and collaboration with local jails, VA services, and community resources.
  • Recent initiatives include exploring the use of psychedelics like MDMA and psilocybin to treat PTSD and depression in veterans.
  • VTCs have been effective in reducing recidivism, with studies showing lower rates of new incarcerations among participants.
  • The structure of VTCs involves key personnel such as judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation officers, and Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO) specialists.
  • Eligibility for VTCs typically excludes severe offenses, and the admission process involves a referral, review, and tailored treatment plan.
  • Research indicates positive outcomes for VTC participants, including improvements in housing, employment, and recidivism rates.
  • Success stories from VTCs highlight the transformative impact on veterans’ lives, with many overcoming significant challenges.
  • Challenges for VTCs include the need for systemic improvements within the VA and a more streamlined identification and admission process for veterans.

The Veterans Treatment Court was established to address the unique challenges faced by veterans entangled in the criminal justice system, particularly those struggling with substance use and mental health issues. 

History of Veterans Treatment Court

The inception of the first VTC can be traced back to January 4, 2008, in Buffalo, New York, under the leadership of Judge Robert Russell. Recognizing the distinct needs of veterans, Judge Russell was inspired by the success of drug and mental health treatment courts to create a specialized court system. This innovative approach aimed to provide veterans with the necessary support and rehabilitation opportunities rather than solely focusing on incarceration.

A Response to Veterans’ Needs

The establishment of the VTC was a response to the growing recognition of the link between military service, post-service struggles, and subsequent legal issues. The VTCs offer an alternative to traditional court proceedings, emphasizing sustainable rehabilitation and the restoration of veterans as productive members of society. With the successful implementation of the Buffalo Veterans Drug Treatment Court, the model quickly gained traction, leading to the expansion of over 300 courts across the United States within a few years. The Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) supported this initiative, further solidifying the role of VTCs in the justice system.

Expansion and Evolution of Veterans Treatment Court

Today, VTCs continue to evolve, with over 500 specialized courts dedicated to meeting the needs of military veterans, reflecting a nationwide movement to serve those who have served their country. The courts not only address legal issues but also tackle underlying causes such as PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, and substance use, ultimately aiming to break the cycle of drug use and criminal behavior among veterans.

Objectives and Role of the Veterans Treatment Court

The Veterans Treatment Court  is a specialized court system designed to serve veterans facing legal issues, primarily focusing on providing treatment rather than adjudicating criminal guilt. 

Core Objectives of Veterans Treatment Court

  1. Address the unique clinical needs of veterans, particularly those with
    1. mental health issues
    2. substance use disorder
    3. Homelessness
  2. Divert veterans from the traditional justice system
  3. Offer tailored treatment and support
  4. Rehabilitate participants and reintegrate them into society as productive citizens

Collaborative Approach of Veterans Treatment Court

These courts operate to reduce the misuse of substances among individuals involved in the criminal justice system, as well as minimizing recidivism rates. To achieve these goals, VTCs collaborate closely with local jails, Veterans Administration services, and community resources to ensure that veterans receive comprehensive care. This includes using veteran mentors, evidence-based screening and assessment tools, and case planning protocols to support the veterans throughout their journey in the VTC program.

VTC’s Restorative Justice Approach

Ultimately, the Veterans Treatment Court seeks to honor veterans’ service by recognizing their challenges post-service and providing a restorative justice approach that aligns with their specific needs. This approach not only benefits the veterans themselves but also serves the broader interests of public safety and justice.

Veterans Treatment Court’s Approach to PTSD and Substance Abuse

The Veterans Treatment Court plays a crucial role in addressing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance use disorders (SUDs) among veterans. These courts are specialized programs that integrate treatment and support services with judicial oversight, aiming to assist veterans struggling with the psychological aftermath of military service, including PTSD and related substance misuse issues. The intersection of combat experiences, mental health challenges, and inadequate support systems often leads veterans to self-medicate with substances, exacerbating their conditions.

Key Components of VTC’s Approach

  • Comprehensive care through drug and alcohol treatment, random drug testing, support group meetings, and educational classes. 
  • Holistic strategy that aims to reduce the high prevalence of SUDs among veterans, with a notable percentage engaging in substance misuse, including binge drinking. 
  • Mental health care access, aiming to prevent the tragic outcomes of untreated mental health issues, such as suicide among veterans. 

By providing a supportive and rehabilitative environment, the Veterans Treatment Court seeks to address the root causes of PTSD and substance use, ultimately working towards reducing recidivism and promoting long-term recovery.

Veterans Treatment Courts and Recidivism Reduction

Veterans Treatment Courts have been instrumental in reducing recidivism among justice-involved veterans. These specialized courts integrate services from the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), local treatment providers, and the judicial system to address veterans’ unique challenges. 

A significant aspect of VTCs is their focus on rehabilitation through coordinated support, which includes mental health services, housing, and employment assistance. Studies indicate that participants in VTCs show promising outcomes, including:

  • Lower rates of new incarcerations 
  • Improved functional domains such as housing and employment status at program exit

Evidence-Based Interventions

Recidivism reduction strategies within VTCs often involve evidence-based interventions like Moral Reconation Therapy (MRT), which is designed to decrease the likelihood of future criminal behavior. 

VRT’s Success Rate

The success of VTCs in reducing recidivism is evident from the data showing a significant drop in reoffense rates among veterans who have completed these programs. For instance, one report highlighted a recidivism rate of only 4.1% among enrolled veterans, substantially lower than the national average for state prisons. This success translates into substantial savings in terms of jail and treatment costs, reinforcing the value of VTCs in the justice system.

The VTC model’s efficacy in reducing recidivism is attributable to its comprehensive approach, which addresses underlying issues such as PTSD, substance misuse, and the difficulties of reintegration into civilian life. By providing targeted support and resources, VTCs help veterans transition more smoothly back into society, thereby reducing the likelihood of reoffending and enhancing overall community safety.

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Structure and Operation of Veterans Treatment Courts

Veterans Treatment Courts are specialized court systems established to address the unique needs of justice-involved veterans, particularly those struggling with issues such as substance misuse, mental health disorders, and the challenges of reintegrating into civilian life after military service. The structure of a VTC is designed to provide a supportive environment that integrates treatment and rehabilitation services with judicial oversight.

The operation of a VTC involves collaboration among various key personnel, each with specific roles to ensure the program’s success. Key components include the integration of alcohol, drug treatment, and mental health services with justice system case processing. This multidisciplinary team typically consists of:

The judge plays a pivotal role in overseeing the court proceedings and making final decisions on the veteran’s progress and compliance with the program. The VJO specialists are crucial in connecting veterans with VA resources, including healthcare, housing, and employment services. They also help in coordinating services with local treatment providers.

Since their establishment, VTCs have spread across the country, each adapting to the specific needs of their local veteran population. The core mission of these courts is to divert eligible veteran offenders from the traditional criminal justice system and instead provide them with targeted services that address the root causes of their criminal behavior.

The Judge’s Role in Veterans Treatment Court

The Veterans Treatment Court system is a specialized court designed to handle cases involving US military veterans facing legal issues, often as a result of service-related psychological impacts and substance use. Central to the VTC’s multidisciplinary approach is the role of the judge, who serves as both a leader and a decision-maker within the court’s collaborative framework. 

Key Responsibilities of the Judge

  • Heads the VTC team, ensuring that all members work cohesively towards the court’s objectives.
  • Reviews case status reports to keep abreast of each veteran’s progress and challenges.
  • Leads weekly team meetings, facilitating discussions and decisions regarding case management.
  • Acts as the final arbiter on decisions, particularly when consensus is not reached among team members.

According to resources from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the inception of the first VTC by Judge Robert Russell in Buffalo, New York, set a precedent for the significant role of judges in these courts. The judge’s responsibilities extend to ensuring that decisions are made fairly and with dignity, respecting the unique circumstances of each veteran. This includes applying rules accurately and basing decisions on facts rather than opinions, as highlighted by veterans’ perceptions of procedural justice within the VTC system. 

Furthermore, the judge’s role is critical in upholding the integrity of the court’s mission to provide veterans with access to comprehensive treatment and rehabilitation services, fostering an environment conducive to their recovery and reintegration into society.

The Role of Veterans Justice Outreach Specialists

Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO) Specialists play a pivotal role in the support system for justice-involved veterans (JIVs). Employed by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), these specialists are tasked with a crucial mission: identifying veterans within the criminal justice system and facilitating their access to VA services as promptly as possible. The Veterans Justice Programs aim to create and maintain vital partnerships between the VA and key components of the criminal justice system for this purpose.

Key Responsibilities of Veterans Justice Outreach Specialists

  • Provide direct outreach to veterans in local courts and jails
  • Conduct assessments to determine the needs of veterans
  • Manage cases to ensure that veterans receive comprehensive care and support
  • Serve as a liaison between the veterans and the local justice system partners
    • This includes linking them to mental health and substance use disorder treatment, which is a primary mission of the VJO program, as highlighted by research.
  • Coordinate with local justice systems to help veterans navigate the legal process
  • Connect veterans to housing, healthcare, and job services

The goal of these efforts is to address the increased risks of homelessness and mental health conditions among arrested and jailed veterans. With over 30,000 veterans served in FY 2020, the VJO program and its specialists are a critical gateway to vital services for veterans in need.

VTC Eligibility and Admission Process

The Veterans Treatment Court is a specialized court system designed to address the unique needs of veterans, particularly those with PTSD and substance misuse issues. Eligibility criteria for VTCs vary but typically exclude veterans charged with severe offenses such as 

  • Homicide
  • Sex offenses
  • Arson

The admission process usually begins with a referral, which can come from multiple sources, including attorneys, probation officers, or the veterans themselves. Once referred, the court’s team reviews the veteran’s case, including a Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO) specialist who provides case management services.

Upon review, the veteran undergoes an intake assessment to develop a tailored treatment plan. The application is then put to a vote for approval or disapproval. If approved, the veteran is informed about the court’s practices, enters a plea, and is assigned a mentor. Regular court appearances, treatment session attendance, and frequent substance use testing are mandatory components of the program. The Bureau of Justice Assistance supports these courts by providing resources and training to ensure effective operation and long-term success of participating veterans.

Veterans Treatment Court Eligibility Criteria

The Veterans Treatment Court is a specialized court system designed to address the unique needs of veterans facing legal issues, particularly those stemming from service-related experiences such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and substance misuse. To be considered for the VTC program, veterans must meet specific eligibility criteria that can vary by jurisdiction but generally follow certain guidelines. These criteria are essential in ensuring that the program serves those who can most benefit from its structured and supportive environment.

  • Veterans facing charges for certain types of crimes may be excluded from VTC eligibility, including serious offenses such as homicide, sex crimes, and arson.
  • Some VTCs do not exclude veterans based on the type of military discharge they received, while others may have restrictions.
  • Eligibility often requires veterans to have a nexus between their military service and the criminal conduct they are charged with.
  • Regular court appearances, mandatory treatment sessions, and frequent substance use testing are typically part of the criteria to maintain participation in the program.
  • The goal of VTCs is to address the root causes of veterans’ criminal behavior through treatment and support rather than through traditional punitive measures.

Understanding the eligibility criteria is crucial for veterans seeking assistance and the legal professionals guiding them through the VTC admission process. The structured approach of the VTC aims to rehabilitate veterans and reintegrate them into society by providing the necessary resources and support tailored to their specific needs.

Veterans Treatment Court Admission Process

The Veterans Treatment Court provides a specialized program for veterans who have entered the criminal justice system and are facing prosecution for certain offenses. The admission process into a VTC is a multi-step procedure designed to identify eligible veterans and provide them with the support and resources they need. 

Initially, veterans are screened for eligibility, which typically includes factors such as:

  • Military service verification
  • The nature of the offense
  • The individual’s needs in terms of mental health and substance misuse treatment

Once deemed eligible, veterans may be required to submit an application or be referred by a legal representative. The process often involves an assessment by a Veterans Justice Outreach Specialist, who evaluates the veteran’s specific circumstances and assists in coordinating with the court. This specialist is crucial in guiding the veteran through the court’s requirements and connecting them to appropriate services.

The court may mandate participation in various treatment programs as part of the admission process. These programs are tailored to address issues commonly faced by veterans, such as PTSD, substance use, and other mental health challenges. 

Admission into the Veterans Treatment Court

Successful admission into the VTC is contingent upon the veteran’s commitment to the treatment plan and compliance with court directives. Throughout the program, which can last from 15 to 18 months, the veteran’s progress is monitored, and adjustments to the treatment plan are made as needed to support their rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

Impact and Effectiveness of Veterans Treatment Courts

Veterans Treatment Courts have become a significant part of the US judicial landscape, addressing the unique needs of veterans who face legal issues as a result of service-related mental health conditions and substance misuse. With over 600 VTCs operating nationwide, these courts aim to provide veterans with the support and resources necessary to reintegrate into society and avoid future legal entanglements. 

Veterans Treatment Court Statistics

A comprehensive national study involving 7931 veterans across 115 Veterans Affairs sites showed positive outcomes. At program exit, 58% of participants had their own housing (up from 48% at admission), and 50% were receiving VA benefits (up from 38% at admission). Employment rates slightly increased from 27% at admission to 28% at program exit.

Combating Recidivism

These courts have been particularly effective in addressing recidivism, with the structured support reducing the likelihood of reoffending. The inclusion of Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO) specialists plays a crucial role in this success by documenting and addressing noncompliance with treatment programs. Furthermore, the VTCs are designed to mitigate the impact of alcohol and drug use problems, which are predictive of new incarcerations. 

Challenges Facing Veterans Treatment Courts

Despite these positive trends, challenges remain, including the need to enhance employment outcomes post-program and the complex dynamics of non-VA benefits. Nevertheless, the existing research and data point to the VTCs’ effectiveness in fostering positive change in the lives of many veterans, making them a vital component of the justice system tailored to those who have served their country.

Veterans Treatment Court Success Stories

The Veterans Treatment Court has been instrumental in transforming the lives of many veterans who have faced legal challenges. Success stories from these courts highlight the positive outcomes that can result from the specialized support and resources provided to veterans. 

  • William Delaney, a former Marine, found redemption through the VTC after a series of alcohol-related offenses. With the VTC’s help, he addressed the underlying issues contributing to his legal troubles and turned his life around.
  • In Georgia, judges presiding over VTCs have shared inspiring tales during National Veterans and Military Families Month. These narratives often involve veterans overcoming significant personal and legal obstacles, with the VTC playing a key role in their rehabilitation and reintegration into society. 

Research from sources like the National Institutes of Health indicates that VTCs are one of the fastest-growing specialty court types in the country. The stories of veterans participating in these courts, such as those highlighted in US Veterans Magazine, serve as powerful testaments to the courts’ impact, showcasing how veterans have been able to confront challenges like PTSD and substance misuse with the support of VTCs.

Challenges and Areas for Improvement in Veterans Treatment Courts

While Veterans Treatment Courts have been pivotal in addressing the unique needs of justice-involved veterans, they face several challenges and criticisms that highlight areas for improvement. 

Ability to Provide Effective Services

One significant challenge is the capacity of VTCs to provide critical services and support effectively. The coordination between the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), local treatment providers, and VTCs is crucial, yet sometimes falls short due to systemic issues such as the need for improvements within the VA to increase access to these programs.

Admission Process

Another area of concern is the identification and admission process for veterans into VTCs. Barriers such as the stigma associated with self-identifying as a veteran needing help, inconsistent definitions of veteran status, and the absence of a standardized approach for screening can hinder veterans’ access to the support they need. Moreover, the modernization issues within the VA, including the implementation of new but problematic electronic health record systems, may put patient safety at risk and contribute to inefficiencies within the VTC framework.

Despite these challenges, VTCs continue to strive for the rehabilitation and reintegration of veterans by emphasizing treatment over incarceration. To enhance their efficacy, VTCs may benefit from systemic improvements within the VA, increased training on veteran-specific issues, and a more streamlined process for identifying and admitting eligible veterans.

Veterans’ Addiction Treatment at The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper

If you’re a military veteran seeking addiction treatment, The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper is here to help. We are a part of the VA Community Care Network, and we offer a trauma-informed program designed for veterans and first responders. Contact a Veteran Advocate today to learn more or to get started with treatment.


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