PHOTO: Opening of Rappahannock Veterans Docket

State Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania (far right) and Spotsylvania Circuit Judge Ricardo Rigual (second from right) at the June 2018 opening of the Spotsylvania Rappahannock Veterans Docket.

A NATIONAL alliance of veterans groups, judges, elected officials and law enforcement is seeking fast-track approval in Congress for a bipartisan bill that would send non-violent veterans facing criminal charges to court-supervised treatment programs instead of prison.

The bipartisan Veteran Treatment Court Coordination Act of 2019 was introduced by Florida Democrat Congressman Charlie Crist. According to the Congressional Research Service, the bill “directs the Department of Justice to establish a Veterans Treatment Court Program to provide grants and technical assistance for state, local, and tribal governments to develop and maintain veterans treatment courts.”

Six members of Congress from Virginia are among the bill’s 112 co-sponsors, including 1st District Rep. Rob Wittman, who attended a meeting on the proposed legislation on Capitol Hill Wednesday with Spotsylvania Circuit Judge Ricardo Rigual, state Sen. Bryce Reeves, R–Spotsylvania, and Stafford Commonwealth Attorney Eric Olsen.

“After serving our country, too many veterans are experiencing mental health issues, substance abuse, and homelessness, which can often land them in the criminal justice system. This bill would give non-violent offenders a chance to rehabilitate themselves through a special program tailored to the needs of veterans,” Wittman said.

The bill would support existing programs at the state and local level that are modeled on regional drug courts, which have become more prevalent in recent years as society shifts from a punitive to a more therapeutic approach in dealing with addiction and mental illness in the criminal justice system.

Some veterans who run afoul of the law in Spotsylvania are sent to the Rappahannock Veterans Docket, which opened last June and is presided over by Judge Rigual, who got it going with the help of Sen. Reeves and deputy public defender Wendy Harris.

Veterans charged with misdemeanors and non-violent felonies who are suffering from substance abuse, depression or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of their military service can enter a plea to have their charges reduced or expunged if they successfully complete an 18-month treatment program. The program provides mentoring by former military members, as well as the counseling and support veterans need to accept responsibility for their actions and become drug and alcohol free so they can successfully transition back to civilian life.

But RVD is not just another feel-good program that excuses or minimizes crimes if they’re committed by veterans. Violent offenders are not eligible, and those who fail to complete the program are required to serve their full sentences in jail.

According to the National Center for State Courts, the first veterans court opened in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008. The concept has slowly spread throughout the nation and there are now veterans courts in about 500 of the 3,000 counties in the U.S., including Spotsylvania and Fairfax, as well as Hampton and Norfolk. But they struggle with a lack of financial support and a too-heavy reliance on volunteer judges. The bill before Congress would underwrite efforts to expand veterans courts to more jurisdictions.

A study published in 2018 by the National Institutes of Health found that “although 20 percent of Veterans Treatment Court participants received jail sanctions during the program, only 14 percent experienced a new incarceration during an average of nearly one year in the program, which is lower than the 23–46 percent one-year recidivism rate found among U.S. prisoners. However, VTC participants who had a history of past incarcerations were more likely to experience new incarcerations, and so recidivism remains an issue in this population.”

Members of Congress should put aside their political differences and get this bill passed pronto. The United States has been engaged in armed conflict since 2001. If anybody deserves a second chance, it’s those veterans who put their lives on the line—and came home with invisible wounds that have not had a chance to heal.

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