In courtrooms around California, including Santa Maria, many of our state’s veterans and military personnel are getting a vital second chance. Both our veterans and communities are benefiting.
I was honored to attend the recent graduation of eight men from the Santa Maria Veteran’s Treatment Court. These courts, in 20 counties of this state, are serving veterans who come through the criminal justice system and are suffering from conditions resulting from combat, including post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, traumatic brain injury and sexual trauma. These combat-induced conditions are at the root of the crime and self-destructive behaviors that have brought them into the justice system.
As the result of a groundbreaking California law passed in the 2006, judges can steer veterans facing these conditions through a rigorous and highly demanding treatment process in place of jail time. Very often these veterans are facing a DUI conviction or an offense involving domestic violence. Most had never been in trouble with the law before being deployed.
Often working in collaboration with volunteer veteran mentors, and support and services offered through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, these courts promote sobriety and recovery through accountability and frequent court appearances. In exchange for completing a rigorous, often 12-18 month process, defendants can earn a sentence reduction and, in some cases, a dismissal of charges.
There are conditions that must be met. Not all military personnel are eligible. A defendant’s condition must stem from time in combat. Veterans who commit very serious crimes are not eligible.
Yet the ultimate goal — returning defendants back to the community with the skills to be law-abiding citizens — is proving to be remarkably within our grasp. At a time when county resources are stretched thin and jails are overcrowded, Veteran’s Treatment Courts are addressing veterans’ underlying conditions, saving millions of dollars in taxpayer money, preventing unnecessary jail time, and providing second chances to those who have served our country.
A recent study of Veteran’s Treatment Court graduates in San Diego County showed no recidivism among its 27 graduates. That’s what I call stopping crime and destructive behavior in its tracks.
Veteran’s Treatment Courts are close to my heart. My husband, retired Judge George Eskin, started the first Veteran’s Treatment Court on the South Coast, and I have been moved by the successes of this and similar programs. Just this year, I authored a bill signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown to ensure that defendants are notified at arraignment, the first stage of the court process, that if they are current or former members of the military, they may be eligible for Veteran’s Treatment Courts.
But being able to continue and replicate the success of Veteran’s Treatment Courts won’t be possible unless we remain committed to them. As California gears up to begin its budget process in January, adequately funding our courts, and Veteran’s Treatment Courts in particular, needs to be a budget priority.
Many of us will participate in events this Veteran’s Day to honor those who have served our country. One of the most important ways we can honor veterans is to support them as they re-adjust to civilian life. More than 2 million Americans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and California is home to the nation’s largest population of veterans. Committing to our veterans’ well-being is a commitment to the safety and health of our entire community.