Chief's Message: Domestic Violence And Justice Court

Chief's Message: Domestic Violence And Justice Court
Posted on 09/01/2015
By Chief Robby Russo - April Rice contributed to this article

When our country began sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, we understood from past experience that acclimating veterans back into society presented some challenges. Many veterans are strengthened by their military service, but some veterans experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Some even return with substance abuse or mental health disorders. Left untreated, mental health disorders and substance abuse by veterans can directly lead to involvement with the police.

The criminal justice system has modified its concept(s) on addressing such issues as substance abuse and mental health. Several years ago “Drug Court” was implemented as a way to channel substance abusers away from jail and into treatment and rehabilitation. A similar strategy centered on research and evidence-based treatment programs has been used for the mentally ill offenders.

There is some quantifiable success in getting these offenders out of jail, into treatment and finding employment and housing.

Utah is among other states using specialty courts to address veterans in the criminal justice system. Veterans’ court uses a problem-solving justice model, or a hybrid of drug treatment and mental health court models. Veterans’ treatment courts seek to address the mental health and addiction issues that often stem from the trauma of active combat that can lead to criminal activity. The veterans’ treatment court model requires regular court, along with mandatory attendance at treatment sessions and frequent and random testing for drug and/or alcohol use. The court has a military-type structure to emulate the environment in the armed forces, employing a system of rewards for completion of program requirements and sanctions (jail time) for noncompliance.

The program gives troubled veterans an opportunity to avoid incarceration if they don't commit any new offenses, stay sober and receive counseling. Rather than pursuing the normal course of a criminal case, the courts focus on providing access to services and rehabilitation, such as substance abuse treatment, vocational training, education, VA benefits and housing. The objective is to successfully integrate veterans away from jail and back into the community and their families. We owe that to those who served. Their experiences in combat that result in PTSD or TBI are real.

The veterans’ courts seem to be effective but can be controversial when domestic violence cases are diverted from the traditional system into a specialty court.
Veterans affected by trauma can pose serious safety concerns when intimate partner violence cases are heard in a veterans' court model. Although most judges are not admitting violent offenders who may pose a risk to others in the program, many get deferred. Some women’s advocacy groups believe veterans court “…is an inappropriate forum due to the great risk of victim coercion, the inconsistent message from the criminal justice system about the criminality of intimate partner violence, the wider cultural and social context of violence against women in the military and the ineffectiveness of treatment in reducing violence.” *

It is difficult to assess whether a particular assault was the result of stress experienced on the battlefield or a result of a preexisting control issue. These are particularly dangerous to partners because of a veteran’s military training and access to weapons. Aside from physical abuse, domestic violence can take many other forms, including psychological, emotional, sexual and financial abuse. Many cases can escalate in severity and may or may not be correlated to PTSD or TBI.

Recent research supports the perspective that domestic violence is a serious crime and should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. A recent local case in a neighboring jurisdiction wherein a defendant in veterans’ court killed his wife and child and then turned the gun on himself begs the question: if victims are adequately considered/protected, do veterans’ courts have the expertise to address treatment in reducing domestic violence recidivism?

I have heard great acknowledgements of success in veteran’s court and support the program. Even so, there remains debate over which cases should qualify and the possibility of relapse (re-victimization) and how such circumstances affect the recovery process. Such issues may have irreversible consequences.

If you know a veteran who is struggling or may need access to resources, contact your local Veterans Administration or try this web site: