Last week Thomas Mitchell penned an incredibly ignorant and even offensive post regarding the better-late-than-never expansion of Veteran’s Court in Clark County. Mr. Mitchell argued against even having a specialized Veteran’s Court, thinking instead that we should ignore everything we know about addiction, the mental trauma of combat, and the relationship between the two, and instead waste lives and untold millions of taxpayer dollars in a Harrison Bergeron-esque effort to treat everyone exactly equally no matter what.
As a vet with three deployments under my belt, and someone who now works in the criminal justice system (often with vets who have committed crimes), I can say with certainty that he has no idea what he’s talking about, how specialty courts work, or how various brain injuries, including PTSD, impact veterans who return home from war.
Honestly, given Mitchell’s past abuse of bloggers via his involvement with Righthaven, I’m reluctant to give his own blog any link love at all. But since it’s clear there are a lot of misconceptions about this and other worthy programs out there, this is a good opportunity for some correction and clarification.
Many years ago, recognizing that drug addiction is at the heart of a huge portion of crimes committed in this state, the Legislature authorized various “specialty courts” to attempt to end the cycle of addiction and crime. The idea is that we’d focus resources on the front end of a budding criminal career with a carrot and stick approach in order to change defendants’ lifestyles before they become, well, career criminals. But thinking of “Drug Court” (as the original is known) as a “special court” leads people to think that there is some special sweetheart deal that you get if only you can convince someone you have a disease.
That isn’t how it works. If you burgle Wal-Mart because you’re trying to support your meth habit, you get arrested just the same as if you did it for the pure joy of thieving. You go before the same District Court judge as any other criminal defendant, and it’s the same prosecutors and defense attorneys who are involved in your case. “Specialty Courts” don’t even come into play in most cases until after you are found or plead guilty.
If there’s an addiction, though, the sentencing judge has a choice. He or she can choose to punish the person, or give them a chance (with some serious help and stringent supervision) to get sober and earn some redemption. While in the program, the person must be active in drug treatment, is treated like a probationer, is drug tested often, and regularly (usually weekly) appears in court for updates with their judge, who can sanction the defendant in various ways if they aren’t toeing the line. This process usually lasts a couple of years – it’s not like you sleep through a couple of AA meetings and skate away from a felony.
In some cases, if the program is successfully completed, the person’s final Judgment of Conviction is set aside or never entered, and they can go start over without that felony on their record. But during the program, the person is subject to far more stringent supervision requirements than regular old probation – in a lot of ways, specialty courts are a lot harder than most other forms of supervised release like parole or probation. The person is not avoiding responsibility, they are in fact embracing it.
The program has had tremendous success in our state, dramatically reducing recidivism rates and days folks spend behind bars. We all win – sober people commit way less crime, which means fewer Nevadans are victimized, and Nevada taxpayers spend less to house and feed criminal defendants. The now former criminal gets a new chance to get a job (and pay his own taxes) without a felony conviction on his record, and his otherwise future victims live their lives unscathed. On the other hand, if the defendant doesn’t complete the program, society still gets our proverbial pound of flesh. He will almost certainly go to prison and keep his record – if we can’t rehabilitate the defendant, rest assured he will be punished.
Most of these folks are pretty low-level offenders, and if they go to prison sans program, they won’t be there forever. Which means they get out eventually, still addicts, and now with a big “gap” in their life and a criminal record, which means they have a hard time finding work. I’m not saying in any way that being in this situation justifies more crime, but nobody should be surprised when more crime happens and the criminal doesn’t “learn” from his prison time. Serious rehabilitation efforts should be a no-brainer to anyone who wants to either save taxpayer money or reduce crime, two things I think we all can agree are good things.
This makes sense for any criminal, but for a combat vet who keeps crawling deeper and deeper into the bottle of booze or pills to make the nightmares stop, it’s a moral obligation.
The original program was very successful, but not for everyone. For example, people with significant mental illnesses had a difficult time dealing with the structure of the program, as one could imagine. Using the original structure as a starting point, Nevada authorized other Specialty Court programs for people with mental health issues, gambling problems, and DUIs. The basic premise was the same – undergo rigorous and sustained treatment and weekly (typically) court supervision, and if you get your act together, you can avoid prison or even cleanse your criminal record. By continuing to specialize, discriminate (no, that’s not a bad word), and focus on individualized circumstances, the successes of these programs have only increased. Nationally, the criminal recidivism rate is roughly 70%, whereas that rate is generally less than 20% for every one of our local specialty courts.
In 2009, the Legislature authorized local jurisdictions to establish one of these programs tailored to Veterans. Here in Washoe County, we’ve had tremendous success with our Veteran’s Court program. It works the same as regular adult drug court, except that the peer support group is different – and that’s what makes all the difference.
The problem is that there is a vast difference between someone who decided heroin was cool in high school and couldn’t escape, and a combat vet who is trying to self-medicate for his PTSD. The irony is that it’s exactly the spirit of self-reliance that gets these vets in trouble in the first place – they’re too proud to admit their meds aren’t working, or that they can’t just “will” their brain chemistry back to the way it was before they saw a couple of mangled bodies who used to be their friends.
Before we had the separate Vet’s court, these aggressively self-reliant folks were thrown in with more run-of-the-mill drug addicts, and they couldn’t relate to them in any way. That wound up being directly counter-productive to the usual peer-support model that ordinarily is so successful in stemming the affect of addiction. But by keeping them in their own peer group, they are finally able, often through older vets who have been through the same trauma, to accept help from both the courts and the VA, which works closely with the judges and staff of Veteran’s court.
Unfortunately, Clark County has yet to formally establish theirs, but is finally seriously working on it, which is what prompted Mitchell’s original post.
These types of programs save money, lives, and prevent future crime by dramatically lowering the recidivism rate and getting people sober. They reduce cost and ultimately, reduce the role government has in the lives of all sorts of people – isn’t that the goal of every conservative, or at least every libertarian (Mitchell claims to be one)? I’m all for punishment when it’s warranted, but to the extent rehabilitation is ALSO possible, we should aggressively pursue it. That’s especially so for our men and women who have sacrificed their mental health in the service of our nation.
Mitchell risably seems to think that being a military veteran is no different than, say, being born with blond hair instead of brown, or that it’s a job just like any other. (He actually sarcastically whines that there’s no special court for aging newspapermen, as if that’s comparable to a year plus in the Sandbox with Jihadists trying to kill you on a regular basis – that’s where his post gets really offensive.) You don’t just “luck in” to being a veteran – we “discriminate” on the basis of veteran status all the time, and we SHOULD – because we recognize vets have sacrificed on our behalf and they deserve to be taken care of by the employer that put them in harm’s way to begin with when they return. That’s especially true today in our all-volunteer service.
The Legislature learned about all of this in 2009, which is why they approved Veteran’s Court on a unanimous, bi-partisan basis, and why it’s a good thing that Clark County gets the ball rolling now. It’s a shame that there are people trying to undermine this worthy program to rehabilitate our returning veterans with nothing more than ignorance and lazy assumptions that ironically mirror President Obama’s “… I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there” philosophy more than anything resembling true conservatism.
There are plenty of wasteful government programs out there. Veteran’s Court (and our specialty courts generally) is not one of them. Being indiscriminately “tough on crime” is wasteful and often unjust. Even if you can’t bring yourself to respect the special circumstances of our returning military veterans, in an era where we need to pinch every penny, we need to be smart on crime, too.