King County considers creating treatment court for veterans

August 16, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

NEW — 1 p.m. Aug. 16, 2011

King County leaders could create a treatment court to offer military veterans treatment and support services for mental illnesses — a concern as service members return from Afghanistan and Iraq suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.

Under a proposal developed by County Executive Dow Constantine, County Councilman Bob Ferguson and King County District Court, a Veterans Treatment Court could debut as a yearlong pilot project to offer special court services to former service members.

The proposal calls for using resources from the existing Mental Health Court to create the pilot project. If a Veterans Treatment Court pilot is carved from Mental Health Court, the cost to the county could be nothing.

The county courthouse in Issaquah, as a site for Mental Health Court, could also host Veterans Treatment Court. If the County Council approves the proposal, a Veterans Treatment Court pilot could start as soon as January.

“Our veterans and their families stand up for us in times of trouble. Let’s provide the support they need when they come home,” Constantine said in a statement. “Veterans Treatment Court will help veterans and their families deal with the trauma and challenges they’ve faced. This nationally proven, successful model will improve the lives of those who have served our country.”

Outlined in a report from Constantine to the council, the proposal calls for a model based on the county drug and mental health courts created to emphasize treatment rather than incarceration.

The county launched Mental Health Court as a pilot project in February 1999. The program expanded to Issaquah in July 2010.

The proposed pilot project aims to meld local criminal justice resources and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs medical, mental health and addiction services.

“A veterans court will enhance the District Court’s focused, therapeutic response to issues involving criminal justice, public safety and mental illness,” District Court Presiding Judge Barbara Linde said in a statement. “I’ve seen firsthand the positive changes made in the lives of program participants in therapeutic courts. We owe our veterans every chance to succeed as well.”

Judge Robert Russell in Buffalo, N.Y., pioneered the program in 2008 after realizing veterans were involved many cases in the local drug and mental health courts.

Since then, nearly 80 jurisdictions across the United States adopted a veterans courts model. In Washington, Clark, Pierce, Spokane and Thurston counties offer such programs.

In the past decade, VA has stepped up efforts to address mental health and substance abuse issues among veterans. The agency launched the Veterans Justice Outreach Initiative to help veterans avoid extended incarceration for mental illness and connect them to VA services.

The effort is intended to meet the needs of older veterans and service members returning home from the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. The younger group of veterans is more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.

The combination of mental health issues, alongside post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries, can lead veterans into the criminal justice system.

Constantine and Ferguson continue to craft legislation to authorize the pilot project and establish a court beyond the initial year.

“A new King County Veterans Treatment Court will address the unique circumstances and needs of our veterans and keep them from cycling back through the justice system,” Ferguson said in a statement. “We owe it to our veterans to honor their service and sacrifice by putting programs in place that break down the barriers veterans face as they reintegrate into civilian life.”

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