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TCL > November 2015 Issue > Out of the Shadows: How Colorado Specialty Courts Help Veterans

November 2015       Vol. 44, No. 11       Page  5
In and Around the Bar
CBA President's Message to Members

Out of the Shadows: How Colorado Specialty Courts Help Veterans
by Henry Vorderbruggen

One of the most rewarding experiences I have had as a criminal defense attorney was appearing in the 17th JD’s veterans court—the Adams County Court for Veterans (ACCV)—implemented by and presided over by the Honorable Brian Bowen. There are many veterans in my family, and I have witnessed each of them face unique struggles related to service to our country. Knowing there are programs like ACCV gives me hope for our veterans who need help, and hope for the future of our judicial system. For this issue, I have asked Henry Vorderbruggen, a former second-class petty officer in the U.S. Navy, to serve as guest author. He discusses veterans treatment court programs nationwide and in Colorado.

—Loren M. Brown


About the Author

 

Henry S. Vorderbruggen is a law clerk for the 17th Judicial District, which serves Adams and Broomfield Counties. Before attending the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, he served as a second-class petty officer in the U.S. Navy. He and his wife, Kristina, live in Denver with their two young sons—henry.vorderbruggen@judicial.state.co.us.


On the heels of the longest war in American history,1 steady waves of veterans have returned home to face an even greater threat than the enemy abroad—readjusting to civilian life. With 21st-century advances in military medicine, more and more veterans are returning home alive, yet they must confront serious injuries and post-traumatic mental disorders that will forever shape the way they live. These effects are often the underlying cause of violent or self-destructive behaviors that entangle family, friends, and the court system as veterans attempt to cope with their past experiences and reintegrate into society. Veterans separating from the military must also attempt to break into a national economy still reeling from the Great Recession of 2008, where bleak employment prospects may be reduced even further by mental illness or substance abuse issues left untreated. This leads to an environment where veterans are unable or unwilling to access the resources available to them and continue to fuel disturbing statistics that show veterans—and particularly combat veterans—are predisposed to depression and even suicide.2 According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, a startling 22 veterans commit suicide every single day.3 This is wrong, and must be stopped. As a society, Americans have urged lawmakers across the United States to take the moral position that military veterans deserve specialized care in the criminal justice system, and a legitimate second chance.

When the nation’s courts were flooded with nonviolent drug cases during America’s War on Drugs, lawmakers reacted by instituting a solutions-based approach that kept offenders out of overcrowded jails while still ensuring public safety through counseling and supervision. The demonstrated success of these policies resulted in the spreading of specialty court programs around the country, leading to the creation of DUI courts, mental health courts, family dependency and neglect courts, and most recently, veterans treatment courts. Established in Colorado in 2009, El Paso County pioneered a Veterans Treatment/Trauma Court (VTC) model that is a collaboration of prosecutors and defense attorneys, the judiciary, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Probation Department, community-based mental health and substance abuse treatment providers, local law enforcement, and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, as well as the veteran’s personal support network. Presiding VTC Judge David Shakes—a retired military officer and Judge Advocate with the U.S. Army—supervises each case and has helped other judicial districts in Colorado establish their own programs.

The ultimate goal of the VTC program is to balance the individual needs of the veteran with public safety. The primary feature is the treatment component, which addresses substance abuse and mental health issues by connecting eligible veterans with counseling and treatment resources. This directly benefits the veteran—and saves tax dollars—but there’s more at stake than that. A community invested in the success of its veterans demonstrates the appreciation we, as Americans, should all have for the harrowing cost service members endure in defense of our fundamental freedoms and everyday security. Too often, their sacrifice is reduced to mere statistics.

Who Are These Veterans?

It’s important for the public to understand what sort of people comprise those statistics—the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who make up this generation’s veterans—the "post-9/11 veterans." Unsurprisingly, these vets are more diverse than their predecessors, symbolic of the fact that America continues to grow more diversified and socially progressive, especially among the young adults military recruiters are on the hunt for.4 Nearly half of today’s vets are nonwhite; more than 10% are women; a quarter are 40 years of age or older; and more than two-thirds lack a college degree. Since 2001, millions of U.S. troops have deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq—or both. More than 730,000 deployed as members of the Reserves or National Guard, forcing them to place their civilian lives on hold for a year or longer, and often more than once. More than 8 in 10 served at least one tour in Iraq—of those, 47% completed two deployments or more. In Afghanistan, 29% of vets completed at least two tours of duty or more. Some post-9/11 veterans even managed to complete multiple tours of duty in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Returning veterans and their families often cope with serious issues, including alcohol and substance abuse; mental illness, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); unemployment and homelessness; and strained relationships. Oftentimes these issues are left misidentified or untreated, and many veterans end up in the criminal justice system instead of an appropriate substance abuse or mental health center.

The SERV Act and Colorado Law

The surge of veterans thrust into the criminal justice system over the past decade demands new and innovative ways of adjudicating these legal issues as well as rehabilitating and treating this specialized class of offenders. In 2008, the nation’s first specialized VTC was commissioned in Buffalo, New York. Quickly gaining traction as an alternative to traditional criminal court procedure for veterans in need of specialized care, the policy was wholeheartedly embraced by state lawmakers and now operates in a majority of states nationwide.5 The movement also inspired action at the federal level. In 2008, Secretary of State and former Massachusetts Senator John Kerry introduced the Services, Education, and Rehabilitation for Veterans (SERV) Act. Modeled on the first VTC in Buffalo, the SERV Act would provide funding for the establishment of veterans treatment courts around the country. Although not yet signed into law, state legislatures have largely defeated the point by their own initiation.

Following this trend, on April 16, 2010, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, Jr. signed into law House Bill 10-1104 (sponsored by Rep. Marsha Looper and Sen. Suzanne Williams), allowing Colorado judicial districts to establish their own VTC programs.6 The bill set off a domino effect in the state. Currently, six judicial districts in Colorado have established veterans specialty courts, or diversion tracks, designed to help vets access services they have either already earned or may be eligible to apply for based on their circumstances. Funded by a combination of state and federal dollars, these voluntary programs address mental health and substance abuse issues disproportionately present in the veteran population, while connecting local vets with peer support mentors who bolster the network of educational, housing, and employment resources.

Why Veterans Courts?

Men and women who serve in the U.S. military endure high costs of service. While some of these costs are immediate and obvious, such as death or injury, many others may not surface or be fully identified until years later. The military experience can be psychologically devastating, and even veterans who return home with ample resources and options for planning the next chapter of their lives can quickly find themselves addicted to drugs or alcohol, or spiraling downward as a result of mental illness, including PTSD. For this reason, it should come as no surprise that homelessness and mental illness disproportionately affect veterans. In any given year, approximately 400,000 veterans will experience homelessness and hunger. Within the homeless veteran population itself, 45% suffer from mental illness, and more than half suffer from substance or alcohol abuse.7 The frequency of mental illness in veterans spans all ages and all periods of conflict, but the signature injuries of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are undoubtedly PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI). Despite the seeming regularity of these injuries and public awareness surrounding the issue, many veterans remain reluctant to seek treatment.

Research also indicates that military marriages are particularly strained and difficult to maintain due to frequent and extended absences combined with numerous other stressors military life can have on the individual, marriages, and families. While still in uniform, some servicemen and women may feel pressure to marry their significant other to obtain the substantial pay raise that accompanies marriage in the military. After multiple and prolonged deployments, however, military marriages frequently result in separation or divorce, which can likewise lead to self-destructive and criminal behaviors that have lifelong effects.8 Out of respect for the veteran’s honorable service to the nation and in consideration of the common problems veterans frequently deal with, veterans struggling with these issues in civilian court may be given special consideration through the VTC, but not special treatment.9 The program’s mantra is "Nothing harsher, nothing softer," and asks veterans to simply take accountability for their actions instead of pursuing shortcuts to rehabilitation and treatment.

What Services Are Available?

The VTC’s unique position in the criminal justice system makes it perfectly suited to develop coalitions among private community-based organizations, public criminal justice agencies, veterans support organizations, and mental health treatment delivery systems. Forming coalitions and partnerships expands the continuum of services available to participants and informs the community about the program. Courts identify eligible veterans through a standardized screening and assessment system, mostly accepting defendants accused of nonviolent crimes and lower-level felonies, while rejecting defendants facing serious felonies or allegations of domestic violence or sex crimes (although each district maintains its own criteria eligibility). Participation in the program is completely voluntary, and each participant is required to maintain regular employment, attend school or treatment, and report for regular and rigorous drug and alcohol testing. Participants must also attend regular status hearings to update the court on their progress, demonstrate active involvement in their treatment plans, engage in community groups, and perform community service. Defendants are held accountable for their actions through sanctions and incentives, including jail time and fines.

Generally, the VTC seeks to provide a socially supportive environment, coupled with a high level of accountability, while allowing veterans to remain in the community in an effort to achieve transitional rehabilitation. Another big reason veterans courts have been so successful is the fact that veterans often relate better to other veterans, and veterans, perhaps more than any other group, take advantage of peer mentor support. Sometimes referred to as "battle buddies" in the military, recovering alcoholics and drug abusers also call them "sober coaches." But whatever their title, people in recovery have shown considerably more success in treatment when they have the steady support of someone they trust—and veterans trust other veterans.

Individual treatment needs are determined via constant reassessment and monitoring throughout the four phases of the program, including (1) stabilization, (2) engagement, (3) action, and (4) maintenance. The overall amount of time participants spend in the program depends on the specific terms of the probationary sentence or plea agreement, while the veteran’s individual progress in treatment and counseling ultimately determines how long that person will spend in a particular phase. Veterans are incentivized to progress through the phases with carrots like reduced supervision and decreased court appearances, and sticks like community service, fines, and even short jail terms. These sanctions are meant as wake-up calls rather than retributive punishment, and are applied by courts with the hope that the veteran will succeed in the program rather than choose to go back to jail. Individual goals are met and encouraged through individualized treatment plans, and upon successful completion of the program, most veterans will have their criminal charges reduced or dismissed entirely. Even more impressive is the fact that every veteran who graduates from the program exits clean, sober, and living a healthy lifestyle that is sustainable—literally saving taxpayer dollars by saving veterans’ lives.

Why Should We Care?

VTC graduate Alex Taus says the program absolutely saved his life. Taus returned home after an extended combat mission to Iraq in complete mental anguish after witnessing a close friend killed in action. In short order, he began to drink heavily, ignored pleas from family and friends to seek counseling or treatment, and was separated from the Army. Inevitably, he was arrested after flashing a gun during a bar fight in Ft. Collins. That’s where this veteran’s story may have ended—with a jail sentence and a desperate young man left alone with his thoughts. Instead, Taus was accepted into the El Paso VTC, and after successfully completing the program, received two years’ probation for what could have been charged as a serious felony. Today, Taus is taking college business courses and volunteering as a peer mentor for other veterans in need.10

In the seven years that have passed since the first VTC was successfully implemented in Buffalo, researchers have followed the participants of the various programs that have sprung up across the country, and the results are outstanding. One report found that more than 80% of the participants it tracked—all of whom were diagnosed with PTSD—remained arrest-free and experienced significant improvement with mental health and substance abuse issues.11 The study further concluded that peer mentoring from other veterans is particularly effective, as is community involvement and support from family, if available. According to the study:

Veterans reported better treatment outcomes and quality of life over time when involved in the Vet Court. When provided programs and services that fostered recovery, veterans improved markedly on all study measures. Veterans particularly improved when provided a combination of trauma-specific treatment, peer mentor services, and medication. The importance of trauma-specific therapy and positive peer role models may be important for veterans with combat exposure who have re-integrated into a society unfamiliar with the struggles associated with combat experience.12

For more information about VTC programs available in Colorado, please visit the Colorado State Judicial Branch website, www.courts.state.co.us.

Notes

1. The U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan—known as Operation Enduring Freedom—officially lasted 13 years, from October 2001 to 2014, making it the longest war in American history. Although the formal end of combat operations concluded in a ceremony in the Afghanistan capital of Kabul on December 28, 2014, American and coalition Special Forces continue to operate covertly throughout the region. By comparison, the Vietnam War officially lasted 10 years (1965–75). Philipps, "Mission End in Afghanistan, but Sacrifices are not Over for U.S. Soldiers," The New York Times (Dec. 31, 2014).

2. According to government jobs data released in 2014, combat vets have the most difficult time making this adjustment and are statistically less likely to achieve employment than a similarly situated veteran who did not see combat. Zoroya, "Recent Veterans Struggle to Find Jobs," USA Today (March 20, 2014).

3. Kemp and Bossart, Department of Veterans Affairs, "Suicide Data Report, 2012" 15 (Feb. 1, 2013), www.va.gov/opa/docs/Suicide-Data-Report-2012-final.pdf.

4. Myrick, "A Legacy of Pain and Pride," The Washington Post (March 29, 2014), www.washingtonpost.com/sf/national/2014/03/29/a-legacy-of-pride-and-pain.

5. Daneman, "N.Y. Court Gives Veterans Chance to Straighten Out," USA Today 3A (June 2, 2008). See also www.ncsc.org.

6. See CRS § 13-5-144 ("The Chief Judge of a judicial district may establish an appropriate program for the treatment of veterans and members of the military.").

7. Department of Defense Task Force on Mental Health, "An Achievable Vision: Report of the Department of Defense Task Force on Mental Health" ES-1 (2007), justiceforvets.org/sites/default/files/files/Dept%20of%20Defense,%20mental%20health%20report.pdf.

8. National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, Background and Statistics, nchv.org/index.php/news/media/background_and_statistics.

9. Russell, "Veterans Treatment Court: A Proactive Approach," New England J. on Criminal and Civic Confinement (2009).

10. Bryson, "Colorado Springs Court for Veterans Persists 5 Years On," Associated Press (June 6, 2015).

11. See Knudsen and Wingenfeld, "A Specialized Treatment Court for Veterans with Trauma Exposure," Community Mental Health J. (Feb. 15, 2015) (citing Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services study).

12. See www.justiceforvets.org.

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