National Commission advocates for reducing veteran incarceration

September 8, 2023 Rob Abruzzese
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In a significant move toward reforming the criminal justice system’s approach to veterans, the Coalition for Compassion and Justice’s Veterans Justice Commission released a policy roadmap that emphasizes finding alternatives to prosecution and incarceration for veterans entangled with the law.

Veterans often face a perplexing array of interventions when they encounter the criminal justice system. Regrettably, with a mere 14% of counties operating a Veterans Treatment Court and many veterans being ineligible due to stringent criteria, there are too many gaps in the current system.

In a compelling statement, the Commission expressed, “Our armed forces veterans have made sacrifices for this nation. It’s crucial that we take steps to prevent these veterans from getting lost in our prison system. Instead, they deserve interventions to reintegrate into society, uphold their responsibilities, and enrich their communities.”

With approximately 200,000 veterans transitioning from active-duty service annually, many face daunting challenges. Among these challenges are mental health disorders, substance abuse, traumatic brain injuries, homelessness, and criminality. Astonishingly, one in three veterans has experienced an arrest or jail booking.

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

The incarceration of veterans poses multiple threats. Crucially, incarcerated veterans lose their access to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care, effectively cutting them off from specialized treatments for PTSD and other related conditions. This is particularly concerning as the suicide rate among veterans is 1.5 times that of the general population. This risk amplifies for veterans leaving incarceration.

The policy roadmap presents alternative sentencing possibilities, acknowledging both the service of veterans and the potential influence of that service on their criminal behavior. These alternatives incorporate evidence-based practices seen in problem-solving courts. The Commission is urging jurisdictions to pass laws permitting veterans to apply for record expungement if their cases follow these new pathways.

Commission Chair and former U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel emphasized the counterproductive approach in the current system. “We’re imprisoning veterans and depriving them of the care they need, often because of their service to our nation. This doesn’t just harm the veterans; it also threatens public safety,” Hagel stated.

Based on this policy blueprint, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) recently adopted the Veterans Justice Act as a model policy. This will serve as a guideline for state legislatures to take actionable measures on this pressing issue.

The Veterans Justice Commission, initiated in August 2022, examines the nature of veterans’ encounters with the justice system and evaluates the support they receive upon returning home. The Commission is comprised of esteemed members, including two former Defense Secretaries, veterans who faced incarceration, and other prominent military and criminal justice leaders.

Drawing from history, Commission Chair Chuck Hagel pointed to the disheartening statistics of WWII veterans’ incarceration and stressed the urgent need for a renewed approach to address the challenges veterans face upon their return. He shared the inspiring story of Hector Matascastillo, a former Army Ranger, whose life took a positive turn due to an understanding judge who saw the potential for rehabilitation over incarceration.

However, many veterans aren’t as fortunate as Hector. The limited scope of Veterans Treatment Courts (VTCs) means many veterans remain incarcerated, leading to further complications, such as the loss of specialized medical care.

Hagel, quoting Winston Churchill, reminded the nation of the importance of learning from history. He highlighted the dire consequences of neglecting veterans in the criminal justice system, from exacerbated mental health issues to increased suicide risks. The Commission’s policy framework offers a beacon of hope for a more compassionate, effective approach.

With the Veterans Justice Act in place, the Commission anticipates a broader, more compassionate approach to addressing the unique challenges veterans face in the criminal justice system. The onus now lies on both state and federal governments to turn these recommendations into reality, ensuring a brighter future for those who’ve sacrificed so much for the nation.


A glimpse inside Brooklyn’s courts: The unseen measures to rehabilitate veterans

The Brooklyn Treatment Court (BTC) for years has sought to challenge conventional justice norms by offering nonviolent individuals with substance use disorders an opportunity for rehabilitation rather than incarceration. 

Emerging in 1996, the BTC was born out of the realization that for many, criminal behaviors stemmed not from inherent criminal tendencies but rather a compulsion to sustain a drug dependency. The Court’s unique approach uses an arrest as a pivotal moment to intervene and reroute an individual’s life trajectory by channeling them towards recovery with the dedicated support of a clinical team and external treatment providers.

Determined to reduce drug-induced crime rates, BTC aims to strike at the heart of the issue: substance abuse itself. Recognizing its role in perpetuating crime, the Court endeavors to dismantle the crippling cycle of addiction, crime, and incarceration, one participant at a time. It focuses on providing early identification of potential candidates, ensuring swift intervention and integrating evidence-based substance use treatments to achieve this goal.

Yet, among the numerous specialized tracks within the BTC, the Brooklyn Veterans Treatment Court (BVTC) holds a distinctive spot. Tailored for those who have worn the nation’s uniform, BVTC addresses the unique challenges faced by veterans. Often, these veterans grapple with substance use disorders possibly stemming from service-related traumas.

The BVTC’s mission is distinct yet intertwined with the broader goal of BTC. It functions as a weekly calendared session, ensuring regular judicial monitoring while simultaneously offering bespoke case management and treatment services.

However, what truly sets BVTC apart is its Veterans Mentoring Initiative. Recognizing the unparalleled value of peer support, BVTC links its participants with veterans who voluntarily dedicate their time to mentor. These mentors serve as pillars of support, guiding their mentees through the demanding recovery process, and often acting as their lifeline to sobriety.

The BVTC has leveraged its community ties to offer veteran-centric substance abuse and mental health services. By collaborating closely with the Veterans Affairs NY Harbor Health Care System, BVTC ensures that its participants receive the specialized treatments they need, encompassing both physical and mental health care provisions.

BTC and its subsidiary programs like BVTC epitomize the evolution of justice. Rather than relegating defendants to incarceration, these courts strive to revitalize their lives. By offering a holistic suite of services, from clinical treatments to vocational and educational support, BTC works tirelessly to ensure its participants not only recover from their substance use disorders but thrive once reintegrated into society.

Judge Joseph Gubbay presided over the BTC. However, he is in the process of retiring and Judge Kim Petersen was newly assigned to take over the part. Currently, judges Gubbay and Petersen are working together to ensure a smooth transition for the court. Hon. Frederick Arriaga is also hearing cases in the BTC.

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