How veterans treatment courts can improve the mental state of vets involved in the justice system

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LOS ANGELES – As the nation works towards normalizing conversations around mental health wellness, Melissa Fitzgerald, former "West Wing" star turned “actorvist,” urges others to support programs that help give second chances to veterans involved in the justice system due to mental health disorders or substance abuse.  

Politicians like Arizona Republican Sen. Martha McSally, along with four other U.S. senators, are working on bipartisan bills for expanding veteran treatment courts across the country.   A majority of the public is not aware of veterans court, which is one of the reasons why Fitzgerald, now the director of the Advancing Justice Initiative at the NADCP and Justice For Vets, works to raise awareness about the impact veterans treatment courts have had on the lives of those who have served the country. 

 Justice for Vets is a program that is dedicated to transforming the way the justice system identifies, assesses and treats our veterans, leading the national effort to put a veterans treatment court in reach of every veteran in need.  Established in 2010, Justice for Vets has helped establish 250 treatment courts and has trained over 3,000 court staff.  

Melissa sat with one of the treatment court judges; Judge Wendy Lindley, who helped spearhead a movement to develop alternatives to incarceration for veterans in the justice system, and with two veterans from the program, Eric Gonzalez and Jeff Henson.

Fitzgerald explained that Veterans Day is our annual opportunity to honor our living veterans for the sacrifices they have made for our country. She also shared the following statement about her work, the effectiveness of veterans court and why it’s important to support such programs:

“It is a day to celebrate those who stood the line on our behalf. Currently, only two million active duty, reserve and guard service members, less than one percent of our population, protect over 326 million of us every day. With approximately 20 million veterans in our country, Veterans Day is your opportunity to find a way to say “thank you.’”

As we honor our veterans for their sacrifice, we must ensure that our gratitude extends to all veterans, even those who may be struggling here at home. The sad truth is that too many veterans suffer following their service with mental health, trauma and substance use disorders. Left untreated, these issues can lead to involvement in the justice system.

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. 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.  

Veterans are among our greatest and most valuable civic assets.  The vast majority of our veterans are strengthened by their service, instilled with values that inspire us all to be better – values like honor, duty, loyalty, leadership, respect, sacrifice, and courage. Veterans are more likely to volunteer their time, more likely to donate to charity, and even more likely to vote. Veterans strengthen our neighborhoods and communities.  We as a nation owe our veterans a debt of gratitude and I can think of no better way to express that gratitude than by supporting programs that work for veterans and their families. Programs like Veterans TC. 

VTC ensure that when a veteran struggles with the transition home, gets in trouble with the law, due to a substance use or mental health disorder, they receive the structure treatment and mentoring they need to get their lives back on track.  Rather than send these men and women to jail where they will receive no treatment, Veterans Treatment Courts hold them accountable while connecting them to the benefits and treatment they need, deserve and have earned so they can return home as valued and contributing members of our communities.

 For more information about Justice For Vets head over to https://justiceforvets.org/about/

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