Publication: American Jails
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 38605
ISSN: 10560319
Journal code: AMJA


Veterans courts and diversion concepts are a growing therapeutic jurisprudence trend in the United States. These new judicial approaches are challenging the traditional roles of judges, courts, corrections, county sheriffs, and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) staff while affording unique alternatives and sanctions. These courts are a special docket within the court system and target veterans charged with nonviolent felony offenses. All these parties are collaborating in this effort to address the needs of military veterans who commit various crimes in order to deal with the aftermath of military service. These courts address the needs of all veterans ready, willing, and able to abide by the court sanctions and make the necessary changes in their lives. The need for intervention, services, and treatment related to their military service has drastically increased in the last several years, especially with the impact of the Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) wars amid a turbulent economy.

The ongoing OIF/OEF wars have yielded many veterans who are returning with incidences of substance abuse, domestic violence, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), unemployment, depression, suicidal ideations, fear of redeployment, and related issues. The war's unpopularity and the prospect of a draft have resulted in enlistment standards being relaxed over the past few years. This has allowed recruitment of those with criminal records, commonly referred to as the moral waiver process. Like those of the Vietnam War, many veterans encounter the criminal justice system (CJS) post-deployment or post-discharge and need a treatment alternative versus incarceration. Veterans in this country appear to be overrepresented when it comes to psychosocial problems such as substance abuse, driving under the influence (DUI), higher rates of unemployment, assaults, intimate partner violence (IPV), family conflicts, homelessness episodes, suicides, PTSD, and other problems. Tragically, some studies report that veterans, in general, are twice as likely to commit suicide. Another study (Wortzel, 2009) also suggests that veterans in jails and prisons face an increased risk of suicide. Most veterans have more violent offenses, are usually first-time offenders and honorably discharged (Noonan, 2007). Recent 2009 U.S. Department of Labor unemployment statistics revealed that veterans have a higher unemployment rate than nonveterans. The combination of these issues, along with studies and statistics, all point the timeliness and urgency of utilizing veterans courts and diversion programs.


Currently, the Services, Education, and Rehabilitation for Veterans' (SERV) Act, also known as S3379 is pending approval xpd?bill=slll-902). This legislation will significantly aid the veterans in our community who emerge in the criminal justice system with co-occurring mental health and substance abuse disorders. The SERVE Act would authorize funds to go to the Office of National Drug Control Policy for the development and implementation of veterans' treatment courts or to enhance operational drug courts to serve veterans. The grants would be administered by the Department of Justice in consultation with the VA. This is a new and challenging nexus of VA, courts, and corrections staff.

Veterans Courts: When and Where

In 2008, the first veterans court was initiated in Buffalo, New York, by Judge Robert Russell. Since this court began, veterans courts have opened in Orange and Santa Clara counties in California; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Rochester, New York; and Anchorage, Alaska. Most are seeing in excess of 100 veterans per month. New courts are being considered in Phoenix, Arizona; Edwardsville, Illinois; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Las Vegas, Mevada; southern Oregon; and Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Erie, Pennsylvania. Their successes will lead to others being developed. The SERV Act would enhance and hopefully sustain these efforts to help spread the veterans court trend across the country.

Generally, the key ingrethents of these veterans court and diversion programs are:

* Local county court and/or magistrate jurisdiction.

* A reliable mechanism to verify a veteran's status.

* Court liaison to interface with the VA.

* Development and implementation through partnership between court system, corrections, VA, and other advocate parties.

* Treatment, mentoring, monitoring, advocacy, and support.

* Availability to all veterans from all periods of service.

Diversion Example

The author facilitated an Incarcerated Veterans Outreach Program (IVOP) and the Domestic Relations Clinic (DRC) at the VA in Cincinnati, OH, from 2002 to 2008. Both the IVOP and DRC were diversion and justice-related. The DRC is a 13-week domestic violence prevention program that was approved by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (ODRC) and Adult Parole Authority (APA) for reentry.

The program targeted veterans having anger and domestic violence problems. Nearly 1,000 veterans were screened for IPV in the DRC. Veterans that successfully completed (56.8%) the program were less likely to repeat (27.6%) the offense. This outcome partially represents what the veterans courts are striving for with all offenders. Hence, this type of program offers an aspect of the problems that are encountered and is a commensurate fit into the veterans court equation. Within the VA system, only Bay Pines and Tampa, Florida; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Cincinnati, Ohio; Buffalo, New York; Tacoma, Washington; and Boston, Massachusetts, have IPV services. The latter are focal studies on D?V and PTSD.

In traditional courts, an offender is sentenced if found guilty. Alternative courts oņer qualified participants an opportunity to participate in court-supervised, community-based treatment in lieu of typical criminal sanctions. Some studies on drug courts have shown a lower recidivism rate and cost savings than traditional court approaches. AU parties in these courts (e.g., judges, prosecutors, law enforcement, probation officers, substance abuse counselors, therapists, community, advocates, mentors, and families) work together toward a holistic outcome that focuses on recovery and support rather than incarceration.

Studies have shown that as many as half of the troops returning from OEF/OIF suffer PTSD and other disorders, and mental health is the second most-treated ailment for returning veterans in the VA system. However, some question the necessity of separate veterans courts, the stigma of being a veteran, and the underlying theme of culpability in the veteran's offense. Is there a connection between their service and crime?

Veterans have generally committed nonviolent offenses such as DUI, drug possession, theft, domestic violence, and assaults. Veterans who agree to stay clean and sober, take urine screens, obtain mental health or addiction counseling, and so forth will get their lives back on track. Generally, both the court and VA staff meet with the veterans routinely for case management and progress. Some court systems even assign a mentor or adviser to support the veterans recovery and monitor progress. Once the veteran completes the requirements, charges can be reduced or cases dismissed and/ or expunged. If they fail to comply, they risk facing their original criminal charges and could be sentenced to jail and /or prison time.


Not all veterans commit crimes. However, the transition from military to civilian life is challenging and these individuals cope in many different ways whether exposed to combat or not. Some will isolate themselves and/or turn to substance abuse, domestic violence, assault, etc., trying to cope with their experiences in the war. As for the courts, VA, and military systems, they are overburdened and lack sufficient resources to meet the needs of those suffering from PTSD, readjustment, and other psychological issues. This places veterans at-risk for a host of problems. As in prior armed conflicts, today's veterans also face the growing stigma of war. Many may think getting help is weak, but it takes strength to ask for help. As indicated by the veteran court bench practice and diversion trends, veterans who are involved in a collective, holistic, and multisystem program have a chance to get their lives back in order. Hence, veterans courts and diversion programs are viable options that also warrant chances to survive and thrive.


Noonan, M.E. (2007). Veterans in State and Federal Prison, 2004. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report.

Schaffer, B., and Seals, C. (2008, Fall). Jailed rural veterans: VA/ county jail & sheriff reentry outreach collaboration. Sheriff. 31-32.

Wortzel, H.S., Binswanger, I.A., Anderson, C.A., and Adler, L.E. (2009). Suicide among incarcerated veterans. Journal of American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 37: 82-91.

Author affiliation:

Bradley Schaffer is the former Division Director, Community Psychiatry, Cincinnati Veterans Administration. He has more than 23 years in Federal service and is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. He now coordinates the Veterans Administrative Supportive Housing (VASH) program at the Butler Veterans Administration Medical Center. He has developed particular expertise with incarcerated veterans and reentry, diversion, domestic violence prevention, and fatherhood programs for veterans. He is a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) and Board Certified Diplomat (BCD) in clinical social work. For more information, contact him at 724-285-2240 or

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