Veterans Treatment Courts in New York State

March 2, 2021

By Jill K. Sanders, Esq.

Veterans are people who served the United State in active military, naval, or air service. In New York alone, there are 700,000 vets. In general, they are less likely to come into contact with the criminal legal system than those who haven’t served. However, they are more likely to have mental health conditions or experience substance abuse.

The first Veterans Treatment Court (“VTC”) in New York was formed in 2008. Since then, approximately half of New York’s counties have created such diversion courts. VTCs help those who proudly served our country get back on track after they’ve stumbled into the criminal legal system.


Statistics Support the Use of Veterans Treatment Courts

Veterans have higher incidences of certain conditions. Approximately 20% of vets have symptoms of a mental health disorder or cognitive impairment. Of those who have post-traumatic stress disorder, 50% do not receive treatment.

In addition to mental health needs, as many as 1 and 6 vets have a substance use disorder. Since 2004, the number of veterans being treated for mental illness and substance use has increased 38%. Moreover, there are approximately 181,000 vets incarcerated in the United States. About 8% of people incarcerated in jails or prisons in the country are military veterans.

More recently, the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic has made mental health care less accessible for vets. In one survey, more than half reported having a mental health appointment canceled or postponed. And veterans may struggle with other contributing issues, such as homelessness and economic instability.

With the incidence of mental health issues and substance use higher in the veteran population, this can be a contributing factor to criminal legal involvement. Where such conditions are due to military service, it seems just to provide for an alternative to traditional carceral forms of punishment where there is criminal legal involvement.


What Do Veterans Treatment Courts Do?

The courts in New York recognize that some vets enter the criminal legal system due in part due to conditions arising from their prior military service. Similar to drug courts and mental health courts, VTCs use a non-adversarial approach to access tools and resources to address a vet’s underlying issues rather than merely punish him or her for criminal involvement.

In VTCs, veterans can be linked to veteran-specific, community-based services and agencies. Often times, volunteer veteran mentors assist fellow veterans to empower them to change their lives. By accessing these resources, each vet receives an individualized treatment plan and is connected to the resources he or she needs and the benefits earned through his or her service.


Changes May Be Coming to New York’s Veterans Treatment Courts

As stated above, approximately half of the counties in New York have VTCs. Yet for vets charged in counties which do not have such courts, “the men and women who swore to protect our country are languishing in a justice system not equipped to deal with their unique challenges – challenges that may well be a byproduct of their patriotism.”

To address this issue, the state’s FY 2022 budget would include a provision that would provide for the transfer of such cases. This would enable vets charged in counties without a VTC to be transferred to a VTC in an adjacent county.