Posted: November 29th, 2016
Written by Adam Nyenhuis (’17) – Wake Forest School of Law Veterans Legal Clinic Student Practitioner
Veterans Treatment Courts are a relatively new development that are specifically tailored to the needs of veterans who are facing criminal charges. In 2008, Judge Robert Russell of the Buffalo Drug and Mental Health Courts established the nation’s first Veterans Treatment Court in Buffalo, New York, to assist local veterans with substance abuse and mental health issues. Today, only six years later, there are over 220 of these special courts serving more than 11,000 veterans across the United States.
Like drug and other treatment courts, veterans courts were created to help treat, rather than merely punish, veterans who suffer from substance abuse and/or mental health issues. Judges, lawyers, and legal scholars have become increasingly convinced that treating people charged with crimes related to substance abuse or mental health problems is a more effective way of helping those individuals break the cycle of criminal behavior and substance abuse. This has led many states to create veterans-only courts to assist those who have served our country in the armed forces and whose substance abuse or mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, are often directly or indirectly related to their military service. Ultimately, these courts aim to ensure that veterans receiving treatment are able to successfully recover and leave the criminal behavior in the past, all while ensuring public safety and reducing recidivism rates.
These courts are veteran-only in part because of limited resources, but primarily to create a court that is tailored to the unique needs of veterans. For example, the courts sometimes pair veterans with mentors who are veterans themselves and they enlist the expertise of local veteran organizations to help create the best treatment plan for the veteran seeking treatment. Further, the courts employ a system of strict accountability through regular meetings with the veterans court team. That team usually consists of a judge, defense lawyer, prosecutor, and others (such as veterans organizations and mentors).
Though these meetings involve parties typically present in a criminal trial setting, the meetings themselves are not traditionally adversarial. That is, their purpose is not to determine whether the veteran facing charges is guilty or innocent. Instead, this process only involves veterans whose guilt is admitted, and the veteran meets with the court to help develop and participate in the best possible treatment plan. The treatment plan can last from a few months to over a year, and it may sometimes involve other punitive measures beyond court oversight. In the end, the veteran benefits through treatment and possibly through reduced or dismissed charges.
The first veterans court in North Carolina was established in 2013 in Harnett County; there are now two more existing courts in Cumberland and Buncombe Counties, with another court set to begin operation in Forsyth County soon. The jurisdiction of the North Carolina veterans courts falls under state district courts, which supervise the treatment program. The court can handle various criminal charges against veterans who fall within the district court’s jurisdiction. The term “veteran” is defined broadly by the federal government, covering any “person who served in the active military, naval, or air service and who was discharged or released under conditions other than dishonorable.” The definition of “veteran” for the purpose of jurisdiction in North Carolina Veterans Treatment Courts can be even broader, requiring only that the defendant seeking treatment has prior military service, regardless of discharge status.
Veterans Treatment Courts are new to North Carolina, but their success and expansion across the country indicates that North Carolina veterans will have increasingly effective avenues to treat and overcome substance abuse and mental health issues.
 Fact Sheet, Executive Office of the President (Dec. 13, 2010), https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/ondcp/Fact_Sheets/veterans_treatment_courts_fact_sheet_12-13-10.pdf.
 VA Secretary Robert McDonald to Address Nation’s Veterans Treatment Courts, Global Newswire(July 23, 2015, 1:59 PM), https://globenewswire.com/news-release/2015/07/23/754663/10142953/en/VA-Secretary-Robert-McDonald-to-Address-Nation-s-Veterans-Treatment-Courts.html.
 See, e.g., Doug McVay et al., Treatment or Incarceration? National and State Findings on the Efficacy and Cost Savings of Drug Treatment Versus Imprisonment, Just. Pol’y Inst. (Jan. 2004), http://www.justicepolicy.org/uploads/justicepolicy/documents/04-01_rep_mdtreatmentorincarceration_ac-dp.pdf.
 See, e.g., Michael Hewlett, Forsyth to open a veterans treatment court in fall; would be the fourth in North Carolina (Aug. 15, 2016), http://www.journalnow.com/news/local/forsyth-to-open-a-veterans-treatment-court-in-fall-would/article_f505879f-1fbc-5411-82ee-1e0f6e1770de.html.
 See N.C. Gen. State Ann. § 7A-272(e), (f) (West 2010). A veterans court is most likely considered a “therapeutic court,” as the court is collaborative and non-adversarial. See Jamie Markham, Veterans Treatment Court, U. North Carolina Sch. of Gov’t (Nov. 12, 2014, 12:35 PM), http://nccriminallaw.sog.unc.edu/veterans-treatment-court/.
 See 38 C.F.R. § 3.1(d).
 See Jamie Markham, Veterans Treatment Court, U. North Carolina Sch. of Gov’t (Nov. 12, 2014, 12:35 PM), http://nccriminallaw.sog.unc.edu/veterans-treatment-court/.