Stress relief in criminal courts

A rising number of state and local criminal courts are recognizing that combat veterans who commit crimes may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or mild traumatic brain injury. If such is the case, they may need – and deserve – health care more than jail time.

The trend is seen in jurisdictions that have established special veterans courts, and in states that have passed legislation to raise awareness among judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys that combat-related stress may be causing some veterans’ misbehavior. When PTSD is confirmed, judges today are handing down more constructive sentences to troubled veterans than stints in prison.

These initiatives, combined with news accounts of “invis-ible injuries” inflicted on thousands of troops overseas, have changed the way many veterans who break the law are handled.

“There’s a bunch of Petri dishes in courts all across the country where people are experimenting with different approaches,” said Brockton D. Hunter, a criminal defense attorney in Minneapolis. “The commonality is recognizing that when veterans’ criminal behavior is driven by a psychological injury, whether PTSD or TBI, we owe them the help they need as the country that sent them to war, because these veterans are every bit as injured as the guy who lost both legs to an IED blast.”

The first local veterans court appeared in Buffalo, N.Y. Others now operate in Orange County and San Diego, Calif.; Tulsa, Okla., and parts of Alaska, Illinois and Pennsylvania.

Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, led a roundtable discussion on these courts in mid-September to tout their benefits.

For veterans facing conviction, these courts assign other veterans to serve as mentors, arrange appointments with VA services, or appoint public defenders who encourage vets to tell their stories in court. Some of these courts also work to address underlying problems for vet offenders, including unemployment and homelessness. Filner said veterans courts cost significantly less than incarceration. Long term, they save money and, “more importantly, they save lives,” he said.

Less costly still is legislation like Minnesota passed last year. Hunter and another attorney, Guy Gambill, drafted and pushed the bill through, inspired by California’s passage of a similar measure in 2007. It modified Minnesota’s sentencing statute to encourage courts to deal more appropriately with psychologically injured veterans. Probation officers conducting pre-sentencing investigations now must consult with VA and inform judges on what role PTSD or TBI may have played in offenses committed by servicemembers or veterans.

Given the sacrifices our veterans have made, legal advocates such as Hunter are urging judges and prosecutors “to take a look at this issue with fresh eyes.” Where they find “underlying psychological injury,” courts should consider “a therapeutic response” rather than convictions and sentences that will follow veterans throughout their lives.

The message is being received. “With lower level offenses, more judges are deciding it doesn’t make sense to convict these people if they have an opportunity to get the help they need,” Hunter said. Offenders often enter no-contest pleas and agree to get treatment, thus avoiding convictions.

But PTSD or TBI can’t be “get-out-of-jail-free” cards, which remains a worry for prosecutors, Hunter said. Before treatment can replace jail time, veterans need to take responsibility for what they’ve done, admit they’ve got a problem and get the help they need.

Tom Philpott, a former Coast Guardsman, has written about veterans and military personnel issues for more than 30 years.