Specialty courts dispense fair justice for U.S. veterans

Col. James Dignan, commander of the 910th Airlift Wing at the Youngstown Air Reserve Station, dropped in on a session of Veterans Treatment Court in the Youngstown Municipal Courtroom of Judge Robert Milich the other day.

That one visit impressed him greatly. “This shows the level of commitment to veterans in the area,” said Dignan.

But then again, what’s there not to be impressed about the two-year-old VTC in Youngstown, one of six in Ohio and about 100 in the nation?

Franklin County Veterans Court Judge Scott VanDerKarr calls the growing network of veterans courts “a win-win-win” proposition. The honorable judge is absolutely right.

Who wins? First and most importantly, America’s veterans do, many of whom suffer deep and lasting scars from conflicts from World War II through Iraq and Afghanistan.

Many suffer mental-health disorders or drug dependency problems. Sometimes they spiral out of control into criminal activity. The Department of Justice reports that 60 percent of the 140,000 veterans in federal and state prisons were struggling with such issues.

Breaking a cycle

Veterans courts seek to treat veterans and break the cycle of drug use and criminal behavior. In return for participation in a highly regimented and disciplined program, successful graduates avoid jail time.

Local communities and their economies emerge as a second set of winners. Through a variety of mentoring and treatment services, veterans make the slow but productive journey back into society. VTC partnerships with One-Stop Career Centers, such as those in Mahoning County, at least crack at the edges of shamefully high unemployment rates for military veterans.

According to 2013 data from the U.S. Department of Labor, more than 200,000 recent veterans remain unemployed, and nearly half a million more are out of the labor force altogether.

A third and final set of winners are all American taxpayers. The price of prison weighs heavily on each and every worker who pays state and federal taxes. According to a 2012 report from the Vera Institute of Justice, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction spends nearly $1.32 billion to operate the Buckeye State’s prison system. That translates into $25,814 per prisoner or $1,315 per taxpayer. VTCs already have a proven track record of reducing incarceration and recidivism rates, thereby reducing those burdensome costs to all of us.

A chance not to be missed

With so many benefits, communities in the Mahoning Valley, Ohio and the nation would be remiss not to actively seek establishment of VTCs in their court jurisdictions. Federal and state governments provide detailed guidance and funding opportunities to do so. For starters, those interested need only search online for The Veterans Treatment Court Planning Initiative (VTCPI), which is designed to assist jurisdictions in planning and developing VTC programs.

Former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton established herself as a pioneer in VTC advocacy. Today, she is leading the effort in Ohio to prepare courts for the increasing number of veterans expected to enter the criminal justice system as more and more of U.S. military personnel return from active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Stratton, who served honorably on Ohio’s high court for 16 years until her retirement this year, serves as a model for all: “My commitment to our veterans continues to grow. After serving us as they have, we should provide them with every resource we can. . . . This court might give them a chance to reclaim their lives.”

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