In 2007, a judge in Buffalo, New York named Robert Russell began seeing an increase in the number of veterans appearing before him clearly struggling with substance use disorders, mental health disorders and trauma. Judge Russell became concerned that not enough was being done to connect veterans in crisis with the appropriate treatment and services.
One day, Judge Russell called the case of a Vietnam veteran who, to that point, had not been progressing in his treatment or with the help being offered by the court, and who struggled to communicate with the court team. In a moment of exasperation, Judge Russell asked a member of his court team and a county employee, both Vietnam veterans, to go out in the hall and talk to him. The three met for over an hour, and when Judge Russell recalled the case, the man walked up to the bench, stood at parade rest, and held his head high. Judge Russell asked him if he was ready to accept the treatment that was being offered. He looked Judge Russell in the eye and said yes.
This moment was the spark that triggered a transformation in the way the justice system responds to veterans. Judge Russell and his team recognized that the camaraderie that exists between men and women who served in the military can be motivational and therapeutic. Surrounding veterans with other veterans is crucial to breaking through the warrior mentality that can make accepting help difficult. At the same time, he understood the importance of linking veterans with the specific resources they earned through their service and which are uniquely suited for their individual needs.
In January 2008, Judge Russell launched the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court. This veterans-only docket is an alternative to incarceration for veterans whose involvement in the justice system is rooted in a substance use or mental health disorder, often both. While maintaining the traditional partnerships and practices of highly successful drug courts – judge, prosecutor, defense, probation, law enforcement, case manager – the veterans treatment court interdisciplinary team includes representatives from the Department of Veterans Affairs – including the Veterans Health Administration and the Veterans Benefit Administration – as well as State Department/Commission of Veterans Affairs, Vet Centers, community mental health and substance use treatment providers, veterans service organizations, and volunteer veteran mentors.
Veterans in the program receive structure, supervision, mentoring and treatment surrounded by other veterans and being connected to veteran specific local, state and federal resources.
Almost immediately after launching the program, the Buffalo team became inundated with requests from other jurisdictions seeing the same increases of justice-involved veterans.
It is important to note that veterans are incarcerated at significantly lower rates than non-veterans, and the number of veterans in jails and prisons decreased between 2004 and 2012. But many veterans are still at risk for involvement in the justice system. In March 2014, The Washington Post released a report finding that more than half of the 2.6 million American veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan struggle with physical or mental health problems stemming from their service and feel disconnected from civilian life. The RAND center estimates that about 1 in 5
veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or significant mental health needs. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates 1in 15 veterans had a substance use disorder in 2014 (SAMHSA, 2015).
Left untreated, these issues put veterans at significant risk for involvement with the justice system. Historically, there has been no comprehensive effort to ensure the justice system responds sufficiently to the unique clinical needs some veterans face. Veterans treatment courts provide an alternative to incarceration that strikes a balance between accountability and the need to treat underlying conditions that affect behavior. In this way, Veterans treatment courts promote public health while protecting public safety, they prove that there can still be accountability while also receiving the benefits, treatment, and mentoring necessary to address the underlying causes of criminal behavior.
In 2010, the National Association of Drug Court Professionals launched Justice For Vets, a division focused exclusively on the training and expansion of veterans treatment courts. To date, Justice For Vets has trained over 200 operational veterans treatment courts and over a thousand volunteer veteran mentors.
Today, ten years after Judge Russell’s inspired action, veterans treatment courts are considered the most innovative and successful intervention for justice-involved veterans diagnosed with substance use and/or mental health disorders.
There are now over 350 operational veterans treatment court programs serving approximately 15,000 justice-involved veterans a year.
While this progress has been remarkable, we recognize there is much more work to be done to ensure veterans treatment court is available to every veterans in need.
To learn more about veterans treatment courts, and to help support their expansion, visit
by Chris Deutsch