As Americans, we owe a debt of gratitude to our military veterans.
The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is committed to doing everything we can to support the men and women who have served our country as they transition back to civilian life.
Many veterans struggle with this readjustment. Pennsylvania has the fifth largest population of veterans in this country, and their struggles affect all of our communities.
It is estimated that of the more than 2.4 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, approximately 460,000 (20 percent) suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression. Yet, only half of those veterans seek treatment. Others resort to self-medication with drugs and alcohol, which often leads to their involvement with the criminal justice system. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates there are more than 700,000 veterans under criminal justice supervision.
- One in six post-9/11 veterans (345,000) has a substance abuse problem.
- Prescription drug abuse among U.S. military personnel doubled between 2002 and 2005, and almost tripled over the next three years.
- One-third of America’s homeless are veterans. On any given night, 67,000 veterans are on the streets. The majority suffer from substance abuse, mental illness or related disorders.
- Veterans who are homeless have a higher prevalence of criminal-justice-system-involvement. About one-half of all veterans who have participated in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) homeless assistance programs are involved in the justice system.
Sadly, 22 veterans commit suicide every day in the United States.
In 2008, after seeing more and more young veterans in his drug and mental health treatment courts, Judge Robert Russell of Buffalo, New York, took action and opened the first veterans court in the United States.
In veterans courts, eligible veteran defendants with substance dependency and/or mental illness are placed on a specialized criminal docket. After initial screening and assessment, these veterans are offered an opportunity to participate in this voluntary program which involves judicially supervised compliance with a treatment plan developed by veteran health care professionals.
Veterans courts emphasize a team-focused approach. These teams typically include representatives from the district attorney’s office, the public defender’s office, the probation office and Veterans Affairs, as well as mentor coordinators. Mentors are veterans who volunteer their time to support their fellow veterans as they navigate the court, treatment and VA systems.
Veteran participants progress through the program by moving through phases. Compliance is monitored through regularly scheduled court hearings, during which participants may be sanctioned for non-compliance and rewarded for a job well done.
At graduation, successful participants have become stable, employed and substance free, and continue to receive mental health care through community and peer-counseling groups or the VA medical centers. Successful veterans courts boast a significantly reduced recidivism rate.
In 2009, Pennsylvania’s first veterans court was established in Lackawanna County. We now have 18 veterans courts, with 10 counties providing magisterial district court diversionary programs for veterans.
In January 2015, I was appointed by Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor as the Supreme Court’s liaison to Pennsylvania’s veterans courts. As the wife of a veteran, retired Army Reserve Col. Steve Todd, I am honored to serve in this capacity.
While the Supreme Court recognizes that not every Court of Common Pleas in Pennsylvania may establish its own veterans’ court, we want to educate all of our court personnel, as well as law enforcement and the public, about the programs available to assist veteran defendants.
On behalf of our court, I recently held six regional forums throughout Pennsylvania to provide an opportunity for counties operating successful veterans courts to share their experiences and to educate all of our counties about the services and resources available to assist them when dealing with veterans in their courts.
To learn more about Pennsylvania’s veterans courts, visit our website at www.pacourts.us and go to “Judicial Administration/Programs/Veterans Courts.”
And, on this Veterans’ Day and every day, to all of our Pennsylvania veterans, thank you for your service.
Justice Debra Todd sits on the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.