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Treatment Courts for Veterans Grow in Colorado, Nationwide

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A veterans treatment court in Colorado Springs will graduate 13 from an intensive monitoring program today. Started two and a half years ago, it’s the first of three Colorado courts developed specifically for veterans.

The need comes from the fact that one in six veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan struggle with substance abuse, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. Post traumatic stress disorder can be an underlying factor in crime and involvement in the criminal justice system as well.

Back when Colorado Springs founded its court in late 2009, the number of military personnel in the El Paso County jail had increased more than 25 percent, according to Westword. The goal is to reduce those numbers. Program manager Carrie Bailey says a lot of times that means coordinating probation with mental health and substance abuse treatment for veterans.

“We end up with another healthy productive member of our community rather than putting them in jail,” she says. “I’m sure that the majority of the public would agree that our veterans deserve that consideration, particularly those that have served on the front lines.”

In fact, Bailey says 93 percent of the 82 veterans currently in the Colorado Springs program were combat veterans.

Here's how it works: The El Paso County District Attorney decides which cases and crimes are eligible for veterans court. It’s typically those who have a probable link between their service and criminal behavior. If they agree to go through the program, they have stricter probation terms, and they're required to make monthly court appearances. In return, they get things like a lesser charge or a deferred sentence.

Critics of the program say that it’s a get out of jail free card for vets. But Bailey says that’s not the case.

“They’ve worked hard to be able to complete the program and try to get to a point of recovery where they’re well, stable and moving forward in a positive way in their lives,” she says.

Despite anecdotal success stories, Bailey says there’s no data yet available on whether Colorado Springs’ veterans court is reducing recidivism rates. It graduated its first class of eight last fall, and recidivism is studied after one year.

Across the country, vet court programs are proliferating. 97 have popped up in the last four years, outstripping the rate that drug courts grew 22 years ago. Chris Deutsch works for National Association of Drug Court Professionals, and specializes in veterans treatment courts.

“What we’re seeing is criminal justice leaders, treatment leaders coming together [and] saying what can we do differently?” he says.

Deutsch says the country’s oldest vet court in Buffalo has graduated 65 veterans since it started four and a half years ago. So far, he says there’s been no re-arrests.

Meantime, data from the country’s voluntary drug court programs show they’ve consistently loweredrecidivism rates since they were started in 1989. Some states, like New Jersey, are even considering taking steps that would make drug courts less voluntary,  according to a recent Stateline report.

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