0ver six, years ago, we created the first federal veterans court in the nation. It has been a success here in the District of Utah, and I believe it can be successful in virtually any district in the country where the court is committed to trying to help our returning veterans. Many veterans struggle with post traumatic stress disorder(PTSD), traumatic brain injuries (TBI), or a variety of other mental and emotional problems resulting from deployments in combat theaters. These issues almost inevitably lead to self medication with drugs and alcohol, and lead to addictions, broken marriages, criminal activity, and homelessness. We owe our returning veterans a debt of gratitude for their service, but we also owe them the opportunity to get the help they need. Veterans comi provides that opportunity for those veterans willing to afford themselves of it.
Veterans court is a treatment court, in some ways similar to drug or mental health courts. But there are major differences as well. No veteran went to war drug addicted, alcoholic, or engaged in violent or criminal behaviors. They did not choose to self medicate for recreational purposes. Likewise, unlike drug court participants, when veterans get their underlying problems treated such as PTSD, more often than not the need for drugs and or alcohol goes away, even after years of abuse. They self medicate because the veterans cannot stand the way they feel, and many are too proud to seek out help, as they perceive their problems to be "weakness". Yet, we know statistically speaking about 20 to 25 percent of returning veterans from the last 10 years of war suffer from some type of mental or emotional problems. In real numbers we are talking about well over a half million veterans who need help, and will be burden on society for decades to come if we do not step up help them now.
There are several keys to successfully starting a federal veterans court. First, you must have a judge who is interested and committed to it. Preferably, the judge has some military experience, but this is not an absolute necessity. Second, you have to partner with your local VA hospital to be the provider of all health related services. This is a great advantage, because typically treatment courts are always looking for ways to fund treatment. But with the VA, it is one stop shopping. They have it all, at no cost to the court or the veterans. Working with their Veterans Justice Outreach Coordinator, the federal judge simply refers the veterans defendant to the VA for assessment and a treatment plan. The veteran signs appropriate waivers so the hospital can share patient information with the court, so the judge can know how the veteran is doing and progressing. The court needs buy in from the US Attorney's Office and the Federal Defender, as they provide the prosecution and defense counsel. However, veterans court is not a typical adversarial proceeding, and the lawyers need to learn their roles. Finally, you need a probation officer to assist. Getting any of the court staff with military backgrounds helps, but again, is not absolutely necessary.
In Utah, we are primarily a misdemeanor court, with original jurisdiction on misdemeanors, infractions, and petty offenses committed by veterans on federal properties, including the VA medical centers. As our court started having success and gaining credibility within the district court, felony cases were referred where the veteran was released pretrial, with a condition that he successfully participate in Veterans Court. Likewise, we have post conviction felony cases, where as a condition of probation or supervised release, the veteran must successfully participate in Veterans Court as a condition of supervision, rather than incarceration. We have had very good results. There are many gratifying stories of men, and women, who have really turned their lives around as a result of participating in our veterans court.
I am happy to report that the District of Arizona, under the direction of Senior Judge Ros Silver, has started a veterans court. There are about 10 federal veterans courts throughout the nation at this time. If you would be interested in exploring the possibility of doing one in your district, please feel free to contact me, and I would be happy to assist you in any way I can. I can be reached in my chambers at 801.524.6620 or email at paul_ email@example.com. Our state court counterparts are way ahead of on this, but I have found it is very doable in federal court with a minimum of new resources. It is a matter of merely redirecting some of the resources that would be used in the courts anyway. I look forward to hearing from you.
Paul M. Warner
Chief United States Magistrate Judge