Sacramento County will launch a new Veterans Treatment Court on Thursday, giving judges the opportunity to sentence veterans convicted of crimes stemming from military service to treatment programs instead of jail.
The alternative-sentencing program in Sacramento will join 18 other veterans courts in California and about 170 nationwide.
Bruce Bronzan, president of the Network of Care, an organization that aggregates information about services available for veterans, said the need for a veterans’ court is acute throughout the country. Veterans courts help address the “underlying issues” behind veteran criminality – mental health problems, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder, among others – that often develop from time in combat.
Bronzan pointed out that the suicide rate among veterans is higher than the rate of combat deaths, according to data released by the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2013.
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“It’s more dangerous to come home and become a regular citizen than it is to stay in combat,” Bronzan said. “It’s a terrible indictment of how we are not adequately caring for these folks when they get back.”
Veterans who qualify for the special court can be sentenced to rehabilitative and mental health treatment programs. Presiding judges are typically familiar with the military and veterans issues. In Sacramento, Superior Court Judge David W. Abbott, an ex-Marine, will preside.
Only veterans who plead guilty or no contest are eligible for the program. Those who commit sex offenses, participate in gang activity or arson are ineligible, as are those convicted of violent felonies and more than two DUIs.
Veterans who violate the terms of their probation will not be automatically dismissed from the program in most cases.
Participating veterans must agree to remain in a pilot program for 12 to 18 months and undergo a treatment regimen designed and administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Sacramento court is the product of two years of discussion among the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office, the Sacramento Superior Court, the Public Defender’s Office, the Probation Department, the Sacramento County Veterans Service Office, the California Veterans Legal Task Force and the federal Department of Veterans Affairs.
Shelly Orio, a spokeswoman for the District Attorney’s Office, said 20 veterans a month will be accommodated by the court initially. She said the court hopes to work up to 50 cases per month.
“The goal of the Veterans Treatment Court is to work with the veteran through the missteps and encourage the veteran to graduate from the Veterans Treatment Court,” Orio said. The court will meet on the first and third Thursdays of every month at 1:30 p.m.