February 2, 2015 marked the commencement of San Joaquin County’s first Veterans Treatment Court. Now in operation more than three-and-a-half years, we have had six graduations with 36 graduates. We expect to graduate 10 more at the next graduation in April of 2019, which will be our largest graduating class to date.
Veterans Treatment Court is held on the first Monday of each month, from 9:30 a.m.-noon in Department 10-D. There are usually about 25 veteran defendants in “Vet Court” at any given time.
What is it? Veterans Treatment Court is an alternative sentencing program which requires regular court appearances as well as mandatory attendance at treatment sessions and frequent random testing for substance abuse. Due to a high and growing number of combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury following their combat experience, a growing number of courts are adding a Veterans Treatment Court to their complement of calendars. Research continues to draw a link between substance abuse and combat-related mental illness which, when left untreated, can result in veterans becoming involved in the criminal justice system. Like anyone with untreated mental illness, self-medication is often the route followed, be it alcohol abuse, drugs, or a combination thereof.
There are now more than 350 Veterans Treatment Courts throughout the U.S. The first started 10 years ago, and these courts are credited with saving lives. Between 8-10% of individuals who are locked up in jails or prisons are veterans, and this group has a higher rate of mental health issues than non-vets. It actually saves up to $13,000 per veteran to be treated in Veterans Treatment Courts versus the cost of locking them up.
Our veterans complete education credits; perform community service; participate in mental health, anger management, substance abuse, and domestic violence programs and counseling; receive treatment for PTSD; and some keep and maintain jobs and attend college or vocational schools. Veterans Treatment Court operates from a holistic approach, treating the whole person with a treatment plan that is personalized to each veteran’s particular needs.
Veterans generally respond favorably to the structured environment of Veterans Treatment Court, given their past experiences in the Armed Forces. A major component of the Veterans Treatment Court is the Volunteer Mentor Program, which pairs honorably-discharged veterans from the community with our veteran defendants. Mentors offer support and encouragement to their assigned veteran over the 12-18 month program. The mentor can act as a liaison between service providers and the Veterans Treatment Court, and allow the veteran to air any concerns he or she has, getting feedback from another veteran who has successfully navigated life after service. The mentor is a role-model of sorts, and a sounding board as well as a veteran advocate.
While mentor training will be provided, the mentor is not a counselor and does not provide counseling to his or her assigned veteran. Mentors serve in the role of a coach or guide, to encourage and support the veteran as the veteran progresses through the Veterans Treatment Court. Mentors may assist the Veteran in accessing treatment, benefits, and meeting the Veterans Treatment Court requirements, so the mentors attend a monthly court session with their assigned veteran when available to do so.
The goal of Veterans Treatment Court is to connect the veterans to counseling and other services and to get them out of, and keep them out of, the criminal justice system in the future.
Veterans Treatment Court is presently recruiting veterans to serve as mentors to veterans assigned to Veterans Treatment Court. Richard Castleman, a recent law school graduate and Navy veteran, is serving as the Veterans Court Mentor Coordinator. Scotty Sheets, an Army and Legion veteran, is the Assistant Mentor Coordinator. If you are a veteran or know a veteran who would like to volunteer to be a mentor in Veterans Court, or would like more information, Scotty Sheets can be reached via text at (209) 292-3916. There will be mentor training scheduled in the near future for any new recruits.