Written by William & Mary Student Sydney Haanpaa

Veterans Treatment Dockets (VTDs)[1] are based on the idea that veterans are entitled to some measure of special treatment and that issues created by their service are particularly treatable in an alternative judicial system.  In 2004, the United States Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics (BSJ) reported that approximately ten percent of those arrested and incarcerated had previously served in the U.S. military.[2] The study also found that an estimated 60 percent of the 140,000 veterans in Federal and State prisons were struggling with substance abuse, while approximately 25 percent reported being under the influence of drugs at the time of their offense.[3]  Veterans disproportionately suffer from psychological and substance abuse disorders when they enter the criminal system but do not receive treatment for the underlying combat-related issues.[4] If the underlying issues are not addressed, the result is a cycle of incarceration. VTDs attempt to mitigate this future harm. Pragmatic concerns also justify the creation of VTDs.  For example, by tapping into the pre-existing programs and services offered by the VA (such as mental health and substance abuse evaluation and treatment programs, veteran outreach specialists, housing assistance, etc.), VTDs are cost efficient programs that work to reduce recidivism and incarceration.[5]

VTDs, modeled after drug courts, are court-supervised, comprehensive treatment programs that promote collaboration between the judiciary, drug treatment programs, and other community support groups.[6]  Although individual programs vary, usually participants regularly appear before a judge while also participating in drug testing, individual and group counseling, and educational and employment mentorship meetings with counselors.[7]

As of September 2014, Virginia is home to 718,034 veterans, making it the nation’s third-highest concentration of veterans per capita.[8]  Despite the large number of veterans present in the state, the judiciary’s approach to specifically addressing veterans’ issues is widely varied.  The Hampton Circuit Court implemented a veterans’ track within the adult drug treatment court in August of 2014.[9] Similarly, Norfolk has established a veterans’ track in the city’s larger drug court system. [10] Fairfax County, on the other hand, established a stand-alone VTD on February 2015.[11] Unlike the Hampton and Norfolk programs, the VTD in Fairfax is a “hybrid drug and mental health docket,” that serves veterans with both addiction and mental illness.[12]

Although Virginia courts may continue to take a piecemeal approach to addressing veterans’ issues in their jurisdiction, a statewide approach is the best solution for a state that serves, and will continue to serve, a growing veteran population.  Action by the Virginia legislature is crucial to the development of such a comprehensive approach.  Unfortunately, past efforts to pass legislation allowing for the establishment of veterans courts has met resistance.  In 2015, Senate Bill 903 proposed the establishment of “problem-solving” court dockets for veterans.[13]  The bill was killed in the House subcommittee. Opponents of the bill claimed that it would “have judges treat veterans differently than other defendants” and essentially work to “’lift[] up the blindfold’ on Lady Justice.”[14] As of February 2016, three bills have been brought before the Virginia House and Senate, and all three bills have been held over until the 2017 session by their respective committees.[15] Two of the bills allow for the establishment of problem-solving courts in general targeting offenders who have substance abuse, mental health, or military-related issues.[16] Senate Bill 317, sponsored by Sen. Kenneth Alexander, on the other hand, establishes problem-solving courts specific to veterans.[17]  Although it is unclear whether the veterans’ treatment dockets will garner support from the Virginia General Assembly in 2017, it is certain that until action is taken on a statewide level, Virginia’s courts will be forced to make their own decisions on how to address veterans’ issues in their respective jurisdictions.

[1] Although “veteran treatment dockets” are used interchangeably with the “veterans courts,” Virginia Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons notes that a distinction should be made between the two: “[I]t is the prerogative of the legislature to create courts. It is the prerogative of the courts to maintain their dockets.” Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons, Supreme Court of Virginia, State of the Judiciary Address (May 12, 2015), http://www.courts.state.va.us/courts/scv/state_of_the_judiciary_address.pdf.

[2] MARGARET E. MUMOLA & CHRISTOPHER J. NOONAN, Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report: Veterans in State and Federal Prison, 2004, 1 (2007), http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/vsfp04.pdf.

[3] Id. at 1.

[4] NAT’L INST. OF CORR., supra note 1 (reporting that “despite these complex combat related issues . . . these veterans or active duty service members are often being treated as any other civilian offender would be treated.”).

[5] See Robert T. Russell, Veterans Treatment Courts Developing Throughout the Nation 132 (2009) (“Research over the past decade has continuously shown lower rates of recidivism and higher rates of financial return for drug treatment courts than for traditional courts. A cost-benefit analysis of veterans treatment court should rival that of a drug court.”), http://cdm16501.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/spcts/id/204.

[6] Office of National Drug Control Policy, Fact Sheet: Veterans Treatment Courts, (Dec. 2010), https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/ondcp/Fact_Sheets/veterans_treatment_courts_fact_sheet_12-13-10.pdf.

[7] E.g. Veterans Treatment Docket, FAIRFAX COUNTY VIRGINIA WEBSITE, http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/courts/gdc/veterans-treatment-docket.htm.

[8] Quick Facts: Virginia, US Census Bureau, http://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045215/51 (last visited March 3, 2016); http://pilotonline.com/news/military/norfolk-loses-grant-that-would-help-veterans/article_4de67997-9050-5eb1-8d94-fcee62f26f87.html

[9] News Release, Hampton Virginia, Veterans Court Has Its First Graduate (Sept. 26, 2015), http://www.hampton.gov/ArchiveCenter/ViewFile/Item/2319.

[10]  CITY OF NORFOLK, BUILDING A WELL-MANAGED GOVERNMENT: APPROVED FISCAL YEAR 2016 BUDGET, 197 (2015), http://www.norfolk.gov/DocumentCenter/View/21857.

[11] About the Veterans Treatment Docket, FAIRFAX COUNTY VIRGINIA WEBSITE, http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/courts/gdc/veterans-treatment-docket/about.htm; Petula Dvorak, A Judge in Fairfax Wants to Help Virginia’s Veterans, THE WASHINGTON POST, June 2, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/a-judge-in-fairfax-wants-to-help-virginias-veterans/2014/06/02/59e30902-e2c2-11e3-9743-bb9b59cde7b9_story.html.

[12] About the Veterans Treatment Docket, FAIRFAX COUNTY VIRGINIA WEBSITE, http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/courts/gdc/veterans-treatment-docket/about.htm.

[13] Travis Fain, Court Docket for Veterans Goes Down in Virginia House, DAILY PRESS, Feb. 19, 2015, http://www.dailypress.com/news/politics/dp-nws-ga-veteran-courts-killed-20150219-story.html

[14] Id.

[15] Bill Raftery, Legislation on Veterans Courts: Authorizing Such Courts vs. Requiring Their Creation, GAVEL TO GAVEL, Feb. 15, 2016, http://gaveltogavel.us/2016/02/15/legislation-on-veterans-courts-authorizing-such-courts-vs-requiring-their-creation.

[16] HB 96 § 18.2-254.2(H), Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Va. 2016), http://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?161+ful+HB96+pdf; SB 26 § 18.2-254.2(H), Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Va. 2016), http://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?161+ful+SB26+pdf.

[17] SB 26 § 18.2-254.2(D), Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Va. 2016) (outlining that veterans dockets would be “specialized criminal court dockets within the existing structure of Virginia’s court system…”), http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?161+ful+SB26+hil.