In the past 10 years, we have seen a significant increase of veterans in the prison system. In 2004, the Bureau of Justice estimated that 10 percent of all state and federal inmates had some level of military service. Today, that number has increased to about 32 percent. Clearly, our veterans are not inherently bad people. So why do so many face incarceration after their return home?

In 2008, a RAND Corp. study revealed that nearly 1 in 5 veterans suffered from PTSD or major depression, and rates of substance abuse and suicide amongst veterans have steadily increased as the men and women called to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan have come home.

These men and women have put their lives on the line serving their country. Yet, when they return home, they find a Veterans Affairs system stretched to its breaking point and incapable of responding to the needs of a two-war military that is slowly demobilizing.

Outside the VA system, mental health and substance abuse services have declined massively in the last 30 years.

As a result, veterans return home and are left to re-enter civilian life with little or no support or treatment. For many servicemen and women, this means a slow but inexorable decline until they eventually enter the criminal justice system, sometimes for relatively minor possession offenses, sometimes for far more serious offenses. Essentially, our prisons and jails are becoming the first and last point of treatment for veterans suffering from PTSD, depression and substance-abuse problems.

The first veterans court began operation in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008. Its goal was to recognize the unique difficulties facing veterans and to tailor a criminal justice system focused on treatment and support rather than simple punishment. By 2013, the veterans court model was adopted in more than 150 courts nationwide.

“Veterans courts promote sobriety, recovery and stability through a coordinated response involving the traditional partners found in drug courts and mental health courts, as well as the Department of Veterans Affairs health care networks, the Veterans Benefits Administration, State Departments of Veterans Affairs, volunteer veteran mentors and veterans family support organizations,” according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

In 2012, building on a model initiated by Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty, the Maine Legislature passed a law establishing a veterans court in Kennebec County. Under the Veterans Treatment Court model, a veteran charged with a criminal offense can apply to enter the program. If accepted, he or she is expected to plead guilty and undergo a long and intensive treatment, rehabilitation and counseling program for mental illness and substance abuse. Participants are supervised closely by the court, the district attorney’s office and specially trained case managers, and are supported by the justice outreach coordinator based with the VA at Togus.

Successful participants are rewarded with a significant reduction in their sentence. Through dedication and hard work, the Kennebec court has helped dozens of veterans.

Unfortunately, there are far more veterans facing charges in Maine. Kennebec is currently the only county offering such a program, and even here the demand is too high to serve all who are eligible to enter the program. Maine needs more veterans courts.

Maine’s overworked and understaffed courts and district attorney’s offices do not have the time or resources to learn about the unique difficulties facing returning veterans. As a result, many service members with serious combat-related illnesses are trapped in the criminal justice system with no access to treatment and little hope. Veterans courts allow judges, defense lawyers, district attorneys and law enforcement officers the opportunity to better understand how to work with veterans. Without this option, many veterans become trapped in a judicial system incapable of understanding and appropriately dealing with their unique situations.

There is hope, however. Liberty recently announced that a veterans court has been approved for southern Maine. A previous issue of funding has been resolved by repurposing resources from the Maine National Guard. This is a step in the right direction, but there is still a need to help Maine veterans receive medical treatment and to preserve jails and prisons for their intended purpose.

As the military slowly disengages from Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of returning veterans will remain high for many years. With the extension of the veterans court program across the state, we could halt the tragic loss of a generation of veterans to an uncaring, unfeeling and inappropriate justice system.

James T. Lawley is an attorney with Augusta-based law firm Lipman & Katz. Lawley specializes in civil litigation and criminal defense.


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