What Is Veterans Court in Pennsylvania? | Worgul, Sarna & Ness, Criminal Defense Attorneys, LLC

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What Is Veterans Court in Pennsylvania?

Pennsylvania’s Veterans Treatment Court (usually called Veterans Court) is an alternative to incarceration for veterans facing criminal charges. Based on similar effective programs (such as Drug Courts), this specialized program helps veterans connect with resources for addiction, mental illness, or other disorders. Veterans Court addresses the underlying issues that often lead to criminal behavior.

Many veterans find it challenging to adjust to civilian life. Like many other states, Pennsylvania provides Veterans Court as an alternative to imprisonment and other traditional criminal justice actions.

Infographic about veterans fights the opioid epidemic

We Owe America’s Veterans

The United States currently has about 1.3 million active-duty service members from a population of over 258.3 million Americans ages 18 and older. Military service requires enormous sacrifice from members and their families. Long deployments wreak havoc with personal relationships. The pay is often lower for service members than their civilian counterparts, when applicable. And always, there is the possibility of severe injuries or death.

When America’s veterans sacrifice so much for us, we owe it to them to provide the resources they need when they find themselves in legal trouble.

Veterans Face Special Challenges

Of the 2.6 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, 50 percent suffer from one or more treatable conditions, including:

  • One in six veterans has a substance abuse disorder.
  • One in five show signs of cognitive impairment or a mental health disorder.
  • Veterans are twice as likely to die from accidental overdoses of opioid painkillers.
  • Half of returning veterans have untreated PTSD.

Approximately 38,000 of all veterans nationwide are homeless. Additionally, most employers are not obligated to hold jobs open for returning veterans. Without proper resources, housing stability, and lack of physical and emotional illness treatment, veterans are trapped in the criminal justice system.

Addiction, Mental Illness Tied to Incarceration

According to Justice for Vets, 81% of justice-involved veterans had a substance use disorder before incarceration. About 25% of justice-involved veterans suffered from mental health issues. Some of America’s 181,000 incarcerated veterans might have avoided prison had they received proper treatment, counseling, and support. Veterans Court is an effective diversion program designed to reduce the number of justice-involved veterans.

Why a Special Court for Veterans?

Veterans have unique training and life experiences that are misunderstood or ignored by traditional criminal justice courts. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, veterans are more likely to suffer from mental illness, substance abuse addiction, and trauma than non-veterans. These factors, combined with a struggle to adjust to life without the structure and camaraderie of active duty, make veterans vulnerable to the justice system.

Pennsylvania has the fourth-largest population of veterans in the country, with an estimated 798,000 veteran residents. Both prosecutors and judges realize the need for an effective alternative to the criminal justice system for veterans.

How Veterans Court Works

Defendants in Veterans Court must commit to a rigorous program as an alternative to jail or prison. The emphasis is not on punishment, but a focused interdisciplinary program designed to discourage repeat offenders. The court works with the Veterans Administration and other agencies to give participants the help and support they need to achieve:

  • Affordable, stable housing
  • Reliable transportation via a free public transit service for veterans
  • Sobriety
  • Improved mental health
  • Financial independence through a veterans’ jobs initiative

Specially Trained Probation Officers & Mentors

Program participants have specialized probation officers who are familiar with the needs of former service members. Additionally, defendants have support and guidance from mentors, informally called “battle buddies.” These mentors share their experience, strength, and hope with participants to guide them through the successful completion of Veterans Court.

Who Is Eligible for Veterans Court?

Veterans Court is limited to defendants who are:

  • Veterans from any branch of service (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard)
  • Addicted to substances including alcohol, opioids, and other drugs (both prescribed and illegal)
  • Struggling with major depression, PTSD, and other mental health conditions
  • Not charged with homicide or sex crimes

Pennsylvania’s Veterans Courts

Pennsylvania’s first Veterans Court opened in Lackawanna County in November 2009.

Since then, Veterans Court has been available in the following counties:

  • Allegheny
  • Armstrong
  • Beaver
  • Berks
  • Butler
  • Cambria
  • Carbon
  • Chester
  • Clinton
  • Dauphin
  • Delaware
  • Erie
  • Fayette
  • Indiana
  • Lackawanna
  • Lancaster
  • Lebanon
  • Lycoming
  • Mercer
  • Montgomery
  • Northumberland
  • Philadelphia
  • Washington
  • Westmoreland
  • York

Help for Veterans Facing Drug Crimes

Many veterans who suffer severe and catastrophic injuries receive prescriptions for pain relief. This factor may account for veterans being two times more likely to overdose from opioid painkillers than non-veterans. More than 20 percent of veterans with PTSD also have a substance abuse problem.

Justice-involved veterans account for 14 percent of drug crimes nationwide, according to the U.S. Justice Department. Veterans Courts offer a path to counseling, support, and drug treatment programs, both inpatient and outpatient. Some Drug Courts throughout the state also have a veteran’s track.

Veterans Court Success Rate

According to the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania, 207 of the 233 participants in the 2018 Veterans Court program completed the program. This high completion rate means that 81 percent of participating veterans successfully graduated, allowing them to re-enter civilian life stable and substance-free.

In an early study of veterans’ courts, researchers found that 89.5 percent of program participants:

  • Remained arrest-free during the program
  • Experienced substantial improvement with depression and PTSD
  • Achieved and maintained a substance-free life
  • Enjoyed better emotional health
  • Found stable housing
  • Formed better personal relationships and social connections
  • Reported improved overall functioning and well-being

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