Monday, March 3, 2014

Veterans Court

By Mark Ober, State Attorney for the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit

It is estimated that Florida is home to more than 1.5 million veterans, according to the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics. Our community is fortunate to be home to many of these veterans. Unfortunately, there are times when we have veterans charged with committing criminal acts. In some of these circumstances, the veteran suffers from a military service-related mental illness, traumatic brain injury, substance abuse disorder, or psychological problems. These problems may have played a role in the criminal act itself or may impair the veteran’s ability to comply with court-ordered sanctions. 

The Florida Legislature has recognized that an appropriate manner for handling some of these criminal cases is through the creation of veterans court programs. Florida Statute § 948.16 authorizes circuit courts to create misdemeanor pretrial veterans’ treatment intervention programs. Fla. Stat. § 948.16(2), 2013. These programs are to be modeled on therapeutic jurisprudence principles, similar to drug court programs. Id. The program may include sanctions for noncompliance. Id. If the defendant successfully completes the program, the court dismisses the criminal charges. Id.

On August 12 in Hillsborough County, the Misdemeanor Veterans Treatment Court (Veterans Court) was created by Administrative Order S-2013-054. Veterans Court is designed to work with veterans who suffer from a military service-related mental illness, traumatic brain injury, substance abuse disorder, or other psychological problems. This court is a diversion program and is only available to veterans who have been charged with specified misdemeanor offenses. The veterans in the program are assisted in accessing the appropriate services available to them through the Veterans Administration (VA) or other community-based resources. Those services may include counseling, medical treatment, housing assistance, or education. The veteran may also be required to complete sanctions related to their criminal charge, such as the payment of restitution. Veterans are also paired with mentors who are themselves veterans. These mentors can provide support and guidance regarding challenges faced by former service members.

The defendant works with the VA to develop treatment goals; progress toward those goals is monitored during monthly court hearings. The services provided to the veteran by the VA are benefits that the veteran is entitled to due to his or her past military service. The ultimate goal of Veterans Court is to prevent these individuals from returning to the criminal justice system. 

As your state attorney, my goal is to keep our community safe. This is not always accomplished through punishment alone. In the case of certain veterans charged with criminal acts, the veteran may have already earned benefits that can help reduce recidivism. By helping the veteran access those benefits while holding them accountable for their actions, we can make our community safer and stronger.