Virginia Lawmaker Pushes for Problem-Solving Veterans Courts

Virginia State Sen. Linda "Toddy" Puller this week filed a bill to make it easier for judges across Virginia to give some veterans who have run-ins with the law an alternative to jail time, and possibly help them stay out of trouble.

The Problem-Solving Courts Act targets state veterans, reservists and members of the Virginia National Guard for a veterans docket within the existing criminal court system -- emphasizing counseling, mental health or drug treatment, and supervision, with the aim of helping the offenders get their lives back on track.

Past efforts to get veterans courts to take root across Virginia have not borne results -- there are two in the state -- but this time may prove different.

"The new [state] administration and the new folks in the Department of Veterans Services ... are really committed to making Virginia the most veteran-friendly state, not just something thrown out at a press conference," a senior staffer for Puller said on Tuesday.

The first court was established in Buffalo, New York, in 2008 by Judge Robert Russell, who acted after seeing how many offenders appearing in his court's drug and mental health dockets were veterans. He developed the separate docket with the help of local veteran volunteers and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

When the nature of the offenses allow, and the prosecutor agrees, veterans are directed into programs ensuring they get treatment and counseling with probation and supervision strictly enforced, according to Justice for Vets, a division of the National Association of Drug Court professionals. The non-profit organization says it is devoted to "keep[ing] veterans out of jail and prison; saving their lives, their families, and their futures, while saving tax dollars for the American public."

A Michigan judge speaking in 2013 described the courts as a "hybrid" of mental health and drug court treatment programs, but tailored specifically for veterans.

Court partners also include representatives from the VA's health and benefits administrations, as well as state veterans' services departments, local veterans' centers and veterans' service organizations, the Labor Department and volunteer mentors.

Puller, a longtime Virginia lawmaker, has a reputation as one of the state Senate's strongest advocate for veterans. Given her family history, that makes sense.

Puller is the daughter of an Army officer and learned firsthand the trials veterans face returning from war as the wife of former Marine Lt. Lewis B. Puller Jr., who lost both his legs and part of his hands to a landmine in Vietnam. Her husband was the son of Marine legend Lt. Gen. Lewis "Chesty" Puller.

Lt. Puller related his story of returning from war and his post-war struggles in a Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, "Fortunate Son." But in 1994 he died of a self-inflicted gunshot.

Advocates for the veterans' court initiative include the commissioner of the state's Department of Veterans Services, John Newby; Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Lemons; the Virginia Bar Association; and the Joint Leadership Council of Veterans Associations, according to Puller's office.

The legislation will make it easier for courts across the state to set up a veterans' docket, but does not make them mandatory, according to Puller. Also, under the bill, veterans previously convicted of a violent crime within the previous 10 years would not be eligible for the special docket.

More than 160 veterans' treatment courts have already been or are being established across the country, according to Justice for Vets.

In 2008, during the inaugural Veterans Treatment Court Conference, which was held in Washington, D.C., then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki praised the work of the courts.

"Instead of either jailing veterans who have been brought up on charges or releasing them back to the streets, you have underwritten treatment as a powerful option for dealing with those who have broken our laws," Shinseki said.

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