Fifteen military veterans who broke the law in civilian life applauded and fist-bumped one another last month as they stepped one by one to the bench of a Kansas City municipal judge.
They’re in various stages of completing veterans treatment court.
With more than 250 such programs springing up in 40 states around the nation since 2008, it’s an alternative to jail for some offenders whose drug habits, injuries or stress related to military service may have contributed to their scrapes with police.
About 80 veterans on the Missouri side of the Kansas City metro area are enrolled in monthslong treatment instead of sitting behind bars or having convictions on their records.
Many are thankful they didn’t screw up west of the state line.
In Kansas – home to three large military posts and about 220,000 veterans – no veterans treatment courts exist. Plans are underway to launch one in Johnson County, however, and a committee ordered by the Kansas Supreme Court formed recently to propose standards and to study costs.
The Sunflower State’s delay in adopting a rehabilitation program that’s hailed elsewhere, including in three of the four states bordering Kansas, puzzles retired Army Major Gen. Clyde Tate, a former Kansan and senior fellow with the advocacy group Justice for Vets.
“Some people carry this misperception and ask, ‘Why should we give these criminals a break just because they’re veterans?’” said Tate. “The goal here is to treat those veterans who have diagnosed conditions that are at the root of their behavior.”
Because veterans courts are relatively new, their success rates nationwide are hard to measure, he said. But in Buffalo, N.Y., which launched the first treatment court six years ago, Tate said nine of every 10 graduates haven’t had to come back.
In Kansas, he said, there’s “been lots of conversations, lots of interest, but there doesn’t seem to be a sufficient catalyst to make it happen.”
That could change relatively soon.
Johnson County District Judge Timothy P. McCarthy, appointed to the bench 19 months ago, has begun to assemble a support team and sketch out a proposed path for veterans charged with low-level crimes to avoid incarceration and get medical help.
“You wouldn’t believe how many people have been coming to me and saying, ‘Count me in’,” McCarthy said.
“By the fall of 2015 we should have something rolling,” he said, adding that he hoped other Kansas district courts will follow.
That’s how veterans treatment courts tend to sprout – not by legislative mandates, but from determined individuals in local court systems, advocates say.
Similar to drug courts
Drug courts and veterans courts operate on similar principles. Defendants must commit to a treatment regimen, attend court and counseling sessions, meet regularly with fellow veterans who volunteer to be mentors, submit to drug screenings and stay out of trouble. The program usually lasts a year.
With combat veterans, the ailments that trigger run-ins with the law typically revolve around drug abuse and issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder. The most common cases diverted to veterans treatment courts are weapons charges, narcotics possession and drunken driving offenses when others weren’t killed or badly injured.
Some courts accept assault cases when victims approve.
Specialty courts can’t be started and sustained without teams of court workers, judges, prosecutors and VA care providers committed to monitoring the progress of defendants who qualify.
Such court resources are scarce in much of Kansas. So are the VA centers that give free care.
“We do have clear budget limitations in our branch of government,” said Kansas Court of Appeals Judge Steve Leben, who serves on a committee formed in July to set statewide standards for specialty courts.
Medical care vs. jail
Another factor beyond finances might be at work.
A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that most U.S. states reduced their overall imprisonment rates between 2008 and 2013, as diversion options, drug and mental health treatment and specialty courts gained favor. But Kansas’ imprisonment rate jumped 7 percent in that time.
Only West Virginia and Arkansas posted higher increases.
A Kansas bill in 2011 proposed establishing veterans’ courts, but the bill died in the House Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice.
The last legislative session produced a veterans sentencing bill that advanced the ball.
The new law allows for hearings in which certain criminal defendants upon conviction can argue their crimes resulted from PTSD stemming from service in a combat zone. A judge may refer a qualifying defendant to a veterans treatment facility rather than sentencing that person to jail.
Since the law took effect July 1, judges statewide have referred three convicts to treatment.
Advocates of veterans treatment courts said the new law embraces the idea of directing criminal veterans into medical care – though they still must face trial and have a conviction stamped on their records.
“That can derail their lives,” said Julia O’Dell of Veterans Upward Bound, a University of Kansas program that steers troubled veterans into educational options. “On a job application, once you answer the question, ‘Have you ever been convicted of a felony,’ your opportunities dwindle.”
State Rep. Mario Goico, R-Wichita, said the new sentencing law “is an intermediate step we can take now and later move to full veterans courts. I’d rather take a bite of the apple than not have it all.”
“We need to do everything we can to help those veterans who are in trouble get mental health treatment,” said Goico, an Air Force veteran who leads the House Committee on Veterans, Military and Homeland Security. “These last wars were very traumatic.”
His fellow lawmakers passed the sentencing bill unanimously. But the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence opposed it.
Coalition spokeswoman Joyce Grover asked: How do you tease out PTSD as the root cause of battering in the home? When is it just a convenient excuse?
“A perpetrator of domestic violence has to be held accountable criminally,” she said. “There’s a lot of sympathy for veterans who come back after honorably serving their country … but you shouldn’t let batterers hide among them.”
Domestic assault is common among the offenses that bring veterans into the criminal justice system. Because of the high prevalence and possible link to combat-related stress, some veterans courts in Missouri accept those violators in the hope that mental health treatment and counseling can fix their behavior, said Kelly Winship, a veterans justice outreach worker at Kansas City’s VA Medical Center.
Whether some violent offenders should qualify for veterans treatment courts is one of many considerations to be weighed as Kansas inches forward, said Gregg Burden, director of the Kansas Commission on Veterans Affairs.
So far, he said, veterans across the state haven’t cried out for special courts to treat Kansans who served in the military.
“You’ve got to get a lot of people to buy in,” including law enforcement, social workers and victims rights groups, he said.
The courts are a good idea for jurisdictions with adequate resources, Burden said. “But is it good for Kansas? We’ll have to see where it takes us.”