The young man standing in front of the judge in the Orange County courtroom has entered a guilty plea to a serious DUI offense. However, instead of requiring the man to pay a fine or sentencing him to jail time, the judge places him on formal probation with a suspended sentence. The judge also refers him to a program that includes treatment for his alcoholism, social services, and closely supervised probation. The young man is a combat veteran, and the court is the Orange County Combat Veterans Court.
The Combat Veterans Court was started in November 2008 as a joint venture between the Superior Court of Orange County and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Long Beach Healthcare System. The goal of the court is to provide an alternative to the criminal justice system for veterans whose first offense misdemeanor or felony—stems from disorders arising from their combat experience. These include brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, sexual trauma, substance abuse, and other psychological disorders. The court seeks to give veterans a chance to get their lives back on track by addressing the problems underlying their criminal behavior.
The 18-month program offered by the Combat Veterans Court is a combination of therapeutic treatment, social services, and judicial oversight. The participants engage in treatment for their substance abuse and mental health problems. Their medical and dental needs are taken care of, and they are helped to find suitable housing. In addition, each participant is assigned a mentor who is also a veteran.This mentor acts as a coach, role model, and advocate, guiding the veteran through the entire program and lending support when needed. Participants must meet regularly with their parole officers and attend court hearings to review their progress. For those who are moving forward, the atmosphere at these hearings is one of friendly encouragement. However, the judge issues stern warnings to those who are not fulfilling the requirements of the program; these participants are reminded that they may be dropped from the program and could go to prison.
During the first few months, the goals for a participant are simply to maintain sobriety and mental stability and to show up at all necessary meetings. He or she is required to attend individual therapy sessions, group counseling, and self-help meetings, as well as to submit to random drug or alcohol testing. Later in the program, the emphasis shifts to reintegrating the veteran into society. This may involve assistance in finding employment and a suitable living situation, and in reunifying with family.
The local Veterans Affairs office provides many of the counseling resources for the veterans in the program. It also coordinates services from various government agencies and nonprofits. These may include employment training and placement from the state Employment Development Department, educational counseling from a local college, and help with legal matters from Legal Aid.
The first “class” of five veterans graduated in October 2010, and the program currently has 50 participants. These participants have incurred no new law violations—a record that demonstrates that the goal of rehabilitating the veterans is being realized.
Although the Orange County Combat Veterans Court was one of the pioneers, veterans courts are now being started across the country. To replicate this program, the court suggests first contacting the local Veterans Affairs office to discuss a partnership. It is also important to contact the agencies that will provide the services to the veterans. Because veterans courts depend on a number of partnering agencies, startup and sustaining costs are low, but good coordination is important.
Participants receive intensive mental health and substance abuse treatment, appear often before the judge for progress reviews, and undergo frequent, random drug tests.
Their program compliance is strictly overseen by their probation officer and a Veterans Affairs case manager, and they have access to a wide variety of supportive services.
Benefits for the Public:
Benefits for the Program Participants and their Families:
Ms. Kim Parsons, Collaborative Courts Coordinator