We often think of the courtroom as a place where justice is served to criminals, but what if it were a place where we could help keep veterans charged with crimes who also struggle with mental health and substance abuse issues out of the criminal justice system?
That is exactly what we saw when we visited a veterans' court in Pueblo recently. Veterans courts are a special kind of court where military service members with substance abuse and mental health needs receive intensive supervision, oversight and treatment with the goal of helping all veterans overcome those challenges and get their lives back.
While veterans are less likely to be incarcerated than non-veterans, the fact is that too many come into contact with the justice system. There are more than 700,000 veterans in the criminal justice system in our country and many of those veterans end up there due to trauma, substance abuse or mental illness as a result of their military service.
During our visit, we saw military service members being held accountable not only by the law, but by their peers. Instead of one hearing, veterans court participants are expected to show up to hearings on a regular basis. At each hearing, a judge — who reviews multiple cases at one hearing — is not only joined by the prosecution and the defense, but also by treatment providers, law enforcement officials, Department of Veterans Affairs representatives and a team of volunteer mentors.
We both have worked with veterans and those struggling with substance abuse and mental health and were astounded to see these courts in action.
These courts are designed around the principles of accountability and structure and help connect struggling veterans with wraparound services from the Department of Veterans Affairs and veterans' service organizations. The result is a holistic treatment that gets results.
Veterans courts are relatively new, with the first in the United States opening in 2008 and the first in Colorado opening in 2009, but initial findings have been very encouraging. Since launching in May 2015, the veterans' court in Pueblo has served about 47 participants and has a success rate of about 85 percent. The program is a very popular option and is currently at maximum capacity and not accepting any new referrals until after the new year. The results have been so encouraging in Colorado that the state is now home to a total of six veterans' courts.
The Community Mental Health Journal, in the first major study conducted on these courts, found that 89.5 percent of participants with PTSD remained arrest free during their time in the program. The study also found that veterans who participated in the court saw improvements with PTSD, depression, substance abuse, relationships and overall well being.
Our veterans put their lives on the lines to protect our freedoms and they deserve our support when they return home. We need to continue to invest in programs that work — and that means veterans' courts. As a state, we must work to expand and improve these courts so that every veteran in Colorado can overcome their struggles with addiction and mental health, stay out of the criminal justice system and get their lives back.
Leroy Garcia is president-designate and represents District 3 in the Colorado State Senate and Robert Rodriguez is a senator-elect for District 32 in the Colorado State Senate.