U.S. Veterans and the criminal justice system

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New Orleans-area Criminal Courts Trying to Help Troubled Veterans

During the recent Veterans Day holiday, like most people in America, I was thinking about the plight of former soldiers. A large number of veterans are plagued by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression and other mental-health issues. They are dealing with substance abuse, financial problems, homelessness, criminal charges, civil disputes, lack of family or marital support – the list goes on.

 

The conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq that began early in the first presidential term of President George W. Bush were extremely costly in terms of the loss of lives as well as the billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars used to fight the so-called war on terrorism. Though most of our troops have returned home, the U.S. still maintains a small presence of 3,000 servicemen (and women) in Iraq and 10,000 in Afghanistan – a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who were stationed in those countries near the end of Bush’s term in 2008.

 

What happened to the soldiers once they returned home? While many were able to handle the difficult transition to civilian life, a large percentage of them – as was the case following the Vietnam War – did not make the adjustment. A 2013 survey estimated that 700,000 veterans (including a sizeable percentage from the Vietnam era) are incarcerated in prisons and jails. More than 100,000 veterans are estimated to be homeless on any given night. Suicide rates for former soldiers skyrocketed. The high cost associated with the war on terror continues.

 

As an attorney, I see one measure of hope for these brave men and women. I’m referring to the growing trend of courts across the nation that are establishing special services for veterans. As of this writing, more than 150 “veterans courts” have been established nationally as part of a drive to reduce the number of incarcerated former soldiers and to give them the support they deserve. It’s a similar system to “drug court,” which attempts to give substance abusers a break from the justice system’s ability to punish by channeling them through a rehabilitation process.

 

Veterans Court and Veterans Justice Outreach Programs

In 2010, the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System and the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court announced the creation of the Veterans Justice Outreach program. The program established the Veteran’s Treatment Court, which is intended for non-violent offenders who have mental health, substance abuse or homeless problems where treatment is a better option than incarceration.

 

“These men and women served our nation proudly, and have fallen on hard times. Many are ill; all need help. It is a privilege and honor to be able to offer that help in whatever way we can,” said Julie Catellier, Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System director, said in a news release.

 

“Veterans Justice Outreach links eligible Veterans with the VA services they have earned.  The goal is sobriety, recovery and productive citizenship,” said Lilia Valdez-Lindsley, a program specialist.

 

Since the establishment of the special Orleans Parish court, a total of 42 veterans have participated, with 18 graduating from the program. That may seem like a small number, but it is a step in the right direction. That’s 18 veterans who no longer are homeless and they are receiving support and benefits.

 

In 2014, the 24th Judicial District Court in Jefferson Parish established a similar program, reserving probation options “for some military veterans whose scrapes with the law are rooted in anything from substance abuse to combat-related psychiatric disorders,” according to local media accounts. The 24th Judicial District started the program with a $300,000 grant from the Federal Bureau of Justice Assistance.

 

Put simply, these programs are alternatives to prison time. They provide treatment for the underlying cause of the defendants’ crimes, whether drugs or alcoholism or mental illness. Failure to complete the programs could result in prison time, which in many cases is what the veterans would have gotten had they not been accepted into the probation programs.The programs also focus on other services, include housing assistance for homeless veterans, job placement and counseling.

 

In 2014, Louisiana lawmakers got into the spirit of things by passing a bill paving the way for more veterans courts and establishing other protections for former soldiers. Gov. Bobby Jindal signed that bill and two others, one that provides residential lease protections for military service members and their spouses, and another that creates a voluntary registry for veterans exposed to dangerous burn pits during wartime.

 

More information about the veterans courts can be found by calling at 504-571-8279 or at Justice for Vets. Veterans facing complex criminal and civil legal issues also would be well-advised to consult with a private New Orleans attorney. Help is out there.

 

 

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