A new Nebraska law makes court diversion program available to veterans. Other states could follow

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Facing his fifth drunk driving offense in 25 years, Robert Jackson of Olathe, Kansas, was given a choice: go to court and take a possible jail sentence, or commit to a diversion program that keeps military veterans out of jail.

Jackson didn’t hesitate to take the option that would wipe the DUI from his record. After all, he’d been through U.S. Marine Corps boot camp and Operation Desert Storm during the Gulf War, developing the grit that earned him salesman of the year for seven years straight at his job. How hard could a diversion program be?

“I mean, it was intense. It was not a cake walk,” Jackson said.

Those seeking to get at-risk military veterans the help they need say a new Nebraska law that makes judicial diversion available for some veterans is serving as a model for other states.

The law signed by Gov. Jim Pillen in April makes Nebraska the first in the nation to adopt a model recommended by the Veterans Justice Commission, co-chaired by a former U.S. senator from Nebraska and one-time Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel.

Until the new law was signed, special veterans treatment programs had been offered in four district courts across Nebraska’s 93 counties. Under the new law, the diversion program is expanded to every district judge, allowing all criminal court judges to order treatment instead of prosecution for veterans facing parole-eligible, nonviolent felonies.

Eligible veterans must demonstrate that a service-related condition contributed to their offense and must agree to undergo court supervision combined with individualized treatment for PTSD, traumatic brain injury, mental health challenges or other conditions. To avoid already overburdened state treatment programs, the veterans diversion offers treatment through underutilized U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs programs, officials said.

Hagel, himself a decorated Vietnam War veteran, is all too familiar with the struggles that combat veterans face in returning to civilian life. Hagel served in combat with his brother in 1968 — a year that saw nearly 17,000 U.S. troops killed in action. Over the years since, he’s seen soldiers he served with struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, alcoholism and drug abuse. Some have taken their own lives.

Increasingly, many have ended up behind bars. The commission estimates that nearly 200,000 military veterans are in prisons and jails across the country.

“You know, something is wrong with that,” Hagel said. “I mean, veterans who served their country in different capacities, obviously, at some point in their careers, we’re very responsible people. And what happened? How did they end up in jail, in prisons?”

Much of the answer, he believes, can be found in trauma exacerbated by multiple deployments many military service members saw to combat zones during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

In a report released last year, the commission found that as many as 1 in 3 of the nation’s 19 million military veterans have reported being arrested at least once. The report recommended that instead of prison sentences, state and federal laws should create or expand judicial diversion,

Now, at least a dozen other states are looking to follow Nebraska’s lead and pass similar legislation, said Army Col. Jim Seward, director of the Veterans Justice Commission. The commission will also be tracking the success of Nebraska’s new statewide diversion law to determine best practices and any tweaks that could make it better.

“We’re in discussions with numerous states across the country who are considering this legislation or preparing to consider it next year,” Seward said. The commission is also working with the National Conference of State Legislatures to push for legislation similar to Nebraska’s and will attend the conference’s annual summit in August in Louisville, Kentucky, he said.

Jackson acknowledged that his run-ins with the law stemmed from a drinking problem he picked up during his military service. Completed missions and other accomplishments while in uniform were usually celebrated with rounds of drinks, he recalled. After his service, he continued that pattern as he found success in the workforce.

“Whenever I won salesman of the month or salesman of the year or if I sold like six cars in a day or something like that, then it’s celebration time,” he said. “Whenever I got a DUI, it was always doing some kind of celebration.”

Jackson successfully completed his diversion program in December. It stands apart from other treatment he’s been ordered to participate in, he said.

“I can remember being 50 years old, sitting in rehab with a bunch of teenagers,” Jackson said. “They’re blaming everything on their parents and all this kind of stuff. That did me no good. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t identify with anyone.”

But at the diversion treatment meetings, he was surrounded by other veterans who talked about their time in combat. That not only helped him deal with his own trauma, it gave him the chance to be able to help other vets in the program. That motivated him to continue going to treatment meetings.

“As a matter of fact, I still go to them,” he said.

Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up