WASHINGTON — Next year, a veterans-only criminal court will open in northern Virginia where they can get help for post traumatic stress disorder, depression and other mental struggles instead of going to prison.
“These courts are staffed by people who are familiar with veterans issues,” like the aforementioned conditions, says Virginia Congressman Gerry Connolly.
Connolly sponsored an amendment in a bill, which passed the House on Friday and now heads to the Senate, that “adds a million dollars in funding for Veterans Treatment Courts,” he says.
There are about 130 “Veterans Treatment Courts” nationwide, and one is scheduled to open in Fairfax this January. The first Veterans Treatment Court was formed in 2008 in Buffalo; now, there are more 130 such courts across the United States.
“We want to make sure we’re treating our veterans fairly and not just flooding prisons with men and who really need treatment,” Connolly says. “Often our veterans coming back, some of them end up encountering the system of justice … because of problems related to their service abroad.”
It is estimated that 320,000 veterans — from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — suffer from brain injuries, according to the RAND Corp, a nonprofit research organization. One out of five veterans suffers from PTSD; one out of six suffers from substance abuse.
“So having specialized courts that can divert folks to treatment programs and can approach more sensitively the whole issue of PTSD is really important,” Connolly says.
Justice for Vets reports that if veterans did not have these special courts, the recidivism rates would remain high and the vets would stay in the criminal justice system.
It also reports that researchers continue to see a link between substance abuse issues and combat-related mental illness. Left untreated, these mental health problems could lead to incarceration. Ten percent of the country’s prison population is made up of veterans, according to the Department of Justice.