On March 14, LD 1698 was signed into law by Gov. Paul LePage. Having strong bipartisan support, this new law will allow Maine to apply for federal funding to establish veterans treatment courts in addition to the one that is currently in Augusta.
Such courts are part of a growing and successful trend that has expanded on the original treatment court that was created in Buffalo, New York in 2008. With its 0 percent recidivism rate, Buffalo’s court has served as a model for over 40 similar courts within the United States. Research has shown that it is effective and cost saving to keep our veterans out of the justice system, whenever possible, by providing necessary mental health services and treatment.
Without having served in active duty, one cannot truly understand the trauma that our veterans have experienced. The physical and psychological effects are often severe and long lasting. In recent years with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many members of our armed forces have served in multiple deployments where they experienced daily threats of death.
After making such a sacrifice for our country, our heroes — our veterans — often return home to face one or more of the following: chronic pain, loss of limbs, traumatic brain injuries, chemical dependency as a method of coping, mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and acute stress as well as being susceptible to higher rates of suicide.
LD 1698, “An Act to Establish Veterans Treatment Courts,” was introduced as an alternative method to hold veterans accountable for breaking the law while also providing a second chance to receive mental health services, many of which are undiagnosed or newly developed upon their return from active duty.
Those who are unfamiliar with and/or are critics of the new law may argue that veterans will not be held accountable for their crimes or that they will be given special treatment. These concerns are certainly understandable; however, the new law will hold them accountable while also providing treatment that is better labeled as “appropriate” rather than “special.”
According to the Department of Justice, there are approximately 140,000 veterans in federal and state prisons, of whom 25 percent had been abusing substances at the time of their offense. With the passing of LD 1698, veterans will be given the choice to have their case heard in the regular court system or transferred to the veterans treatment court which will combine elements from the presently established drug treatment court and co-occurring disorders court system.
The veterans treatment court acts as an intervention and offers veterans the opportunity to receive mental health and/or substance abuse treatment. This intervention also relies on other veterans to serve as volunteer mentors. Mentoring can play a highly supportive and effective role since veterans have a strong camaraderie and can offer each other advice, encouragement and understanding.
By receiving such treatment, veterans will be much less likely to commit further crimes than if they were incarcerated. The judge’s orders will consist of mandatory treatment, community service and fines. If the veteran fails to comply, he or she will face further consequences by serving time in jail or prison.
Veterans have made profound sacrifices for our country and as a result face many severe, challenging and often lifelong issues. Most will never encounter the criminal justice system, but for the minority who do, the veterans treatment court is a way to intervene, provide support and assistance and hold our veterans accountable for their actions while continuing to view them with respect and dignity.
As the law now indicates, “as a grateful state, we must continue to honor the military service of our men and women by providing them with an alternative to incarceration when feasible, permitting them instead to obtain proper treatment for mental health and substance abuse problems that have resulted from military service.”
Donna L. Brown of Bangor is a graduate student of social work at the University of Maine.