Crime & Justice

US veterans courts grow quickly but inconsistently

A veteran salutes Judge Jacqueline L. Lee in the Harnett County, N.C. Veterans Treatment Court.
A veteran salutes Judge Jacqueline L. Lee in the Harnett County, N.C. Veterans Treatment Court.
Jay Price/American Homefront Project

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The number of special courts for military veterans who get in trouble with the law is increasing rapidly.

The first veterans treatment court opened eight years ago in upstate New York. Now there more than 300 of them across the country, and hundreds more are expected to open in the next few years.

"Between 2008 and 2010, maybe there were 20 or 30, so you figure just in the last five or six years it's expanded that much," said Scott Swaim, director of the nonprofit group Justice for Vets, which has a federal grant to train the staffs of the courts at no cost to them. Swaim said his group trains about 50 courts around the country in a typical year.

The courts are for veterans who have been charged with minor crimes. They're a kind of hybrid approach to justice. They are intended to help vets deal with problems like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and substance abuse, while lowering the likelihood of repeated arrests.

Advocates say they prevent crime and save taxpayers money.

But as the number of courts has exploded, that growth has been haphazard, missing some big population centers and even entire states.

The Veterans Treatment Court in Harnett County was the first in North Carolina. It has graduated 21 veterans since 2014 and so far none has been arrested again.

Chief District Court Judge Jacqueline L. Lee presides over the treatment court, which meets weekly. She said veterans deserve the second chance that her court offers.

"They have gone through so much for our country — for me, for you, for every citizen in this land," Lee said. "We owe it to them that when they go and do these things for our country, we look after them when they come back."

Lee essentially acts as commanding officer in her courtroom, and much of what she does is aimed at restoring structure to veterans' lives and helping them feel their ties to the military again.

There's a ceremony in the courtroom recognizing newcomers, and veterans who complete their treatment program go through another ceremony for graduation. Each court session includes a brief lesson about what happened that particular day in military history.

Courts operate differently in different parts of the country. Some only take combat veterans, others accept only those who have committed crimes directly related to a condition such as service-related PTSD.

But Swaim said the more successful courts share certain features, such as robust mentor programs. Also typical are attendance mandates for treatment sessions, and frequent and random testing for drug and alcohol use.

It can take veterans two years or more to successfully complete the court program, after which their criminal records may be cleared.

On a recent day in the Harnett County Veterans Treatment Court, Wilton MacKenzie, 43, was one of the men who came before Judge Lee.

McKenzie has an appealing laugh that he uses a lot, close-cropped hair as if he were still in the Army — and, until recently, a charge hanging over him of assault on a female. That charge meant the only job he could find is part time, working for a waste hauler.

McKenzie served three hard combat tours — two in Iraq, one in Afghanistan — and has been diagnosed with PTSD.

Three veterans stand before Judge Jacqueline L. Lee during their graduation ceremony from the Harnett County, N.C.Veterans Treatment Court.
Three veterans stand before Judge Jacqueline L. Lee during their graduation ceremony from the Harnett County, N.C.Veterans Treatment Court.
Jay Price/American Homefront Project

He reluctantly talked about one experience during his tour in Mosul, Iraq. He and four other U.S. soldiers were walking through the city on a mission when they came under a heavy attack by dozens of militants shooting from roofs, alleys, and buildings.

They took cover on a rooftop, and a quick reaction force arrived in a Black Hawk helicopter to help. It was overhead when it collided with another helicopter, and one of the aircraft fell, burning, onto the roof where his unit was.

"I will never forget watching this staff sergeant, laying down there getting burned trying to help this guy in the back of the helicopter," MacKenzie said. "We were trying to put him out because he was trying to hold on to him."

McKenzie said his combat experience changed him and eventually led to his brush with the law. But he said the court helped him get back on track.

"They pointed me in the right direction to get the help I need," he said. "because I was not that type of person before the military."

Mark Teachey, himself a retired Army officer, coordinates the Harnett County court. Twenty-one veterans have successfully passed through it since 2014.

"Zero recidivism," Teachey said. "No one's been re-arrested. That is remarkable."

That’s similar to outcomes in veterans treatment courts around the country since the first one opened in Buffalo in 2008.

Early research suggests that the courts are saving taxpayers millions of dollars in court, jail and, prison costs, as well things that can’t be tallied, like crimes that have been prevented. That success has fueled dizzying growth in the number of veterans treatment courts.

But even with rapid growth, the courts aren’t everywhere they’re needed. North Carolina has three, and a fourth is opening soon. But advocates estimate the state needs as many as 17.

The situation is similar in most other states, and it means that some veterans have to drive long distances to find a veterans court, while others are unable to apply to enter the courts at all.

One reason for the haphazard growth pattern is a kind of enthusiasm gap. It’s not easy to start a veterans court, and it typically requires participation from prosecutors, public defenders, volunteers, the VA, and other players. Not every community that needs a court has someone motivated enough to build one.

"Someone in the legal system has to start it," Swaim said. "Some judge somewhere has to say, 'Yeah, I think it's a great idea,' or some legislator for some state has to say 'Yes, we believe veterans treatment courts have value, and yes, you can start one.'"

Another impediment is money. In most states, there's no ongoing funding for the courts' startup and operating costs other than short-term grants.

Swaim said that can seem daunting, but in practice it doesn't usually cost much to run the courts. The VA pays for much of the counseling, which is a major part of the cost. 

Harnett County was fortunate. It got three years of startup grants from the state, then won a $1.4 million federal grant this fall.

Before, it could accept only those who have honorable discharges and are eligible for VA treatment. The new grant, though, will allow the court to pay for non-VA treatment, so it can accept veterans it couldn't before, Teachey said.

"Some of these veterans have a less than honorable discharge because they went AWOL (absent without leave), he said. "One particular individual went AWOL and when they found him he was in treatment, and they kicked him out of the military because he was getting PTSD treatment."

The money also will allow the court to expand its staff and about double the number of veterans it can serve, Teachey said.

McKenzie recently had his last day in the court, because he graduated along with two other veterans. He completed the court program after more than a year and a half of treatment and counseling, working with a mentor and appearing regularly in court, despite the fact that it's an hour away from his home in another county.

His assault charge will now be erased from his record.

"I can tell you, these people will never see me again," McKenzie said after his final court appearance, "unless they ask me to come to visit."

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project -- a collaboration of North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC, Southern California Public Radio, KUOW-Seattle, and WUSF-Tampa.