Laurie Forbes Neff

Laurie Forbes Neff

Following eight years of honorable service, which included a 14-month combat tour in Iraq, Matthew Sparks (not his real name) was discharged from the Army in 2008.

In Iraq, Sparks sustained multiple injuries and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Following his discharge, he experienced significant residual pain from those injuries; for a back injury, which left shrapnel in his side, he was prescribed tramadol, a narcotic-like pain reliever. Sparks became addicted to the tramadol and also began self-medicating with alcohol. He resorted to forging prescriptions and writing bad checks to support his addiction.

Sparks was arrested more than 20 times on various offenses and ultimately found himself in jail facing multiple felony charges.

Following PTSD and substance-abuse treatment provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs, Sparks was convicted of multiple felonies and sentenced to nine years in the state penitentiary, which was suspended for time served, the payment of restitution and three years of supervised probation.

Sparks’ life has been forever and profoundly impacted by his actions in the three years following his discharge from the Army. Unable to deal with the emotional and physical injuries he sustained in Iraq, he abused substances to stave off the pain, stole to support his habit, lost his wife and inflicted untold emotional injuries upon his children.

There was no problem-solving court aimed at treating veterans where Sparks was convicted. The commonwealth may have considered lesser charges if there was a judicially supervised restorative and therapeutic treatment program that Sparks could have completed to address his substance abuse and mental health problems.

Justice-involved veterans and persons with mental illness almost never receive the treatment necessary to address the underlying issues that have caused their criminal behavior. This should not be the case. Incarceration without treatment is not working, does not address the root cause and is costly to the commonwealth. We need to treat the underlying causes of criminality, when possible.

The Problem-Solving Court Act was recently introduced to the General Assembly, with bipartisan support. The PSCA would authorize the creation of treatment courts for veterans and those with mental illnesses.

Thirty-five other states, including Kentucky and Texas, have established veterans treatment dockets or courts because veterans and mental health treatment dockets are cost-effective, run within the existing court structure and have very low startup and operational costs. Similar to our existing drug courts, they typically have federal funding to help establish and run critical components. Veteran-focused courts also have the benefit of access to the VA to facilitate the evaluation and treatment of mental health and substance abuse issues, for which the VA bears the cost. This conserves community resources.

Research shows that when the underlying causes of criminality are addressed with treatment versus incarceration, recidivism decreases, the costs of incarceration decrease and the community avoids additional economic and social costs associated with criminal behavior. By example, in one year, a veterans treatment court saved Cook County, Ill., almost $600,000 due to the decrease in the number of incarcerated veterans. Mental health-focused problem-solving courts show recidivism rates at 10 percent to 15 percent, compared with drug courts, which report recidivism rates of 25 percent.

Problem-solving courts do not simply let defendants “off the hook.” Participation is entirely voluntary and participants are held responsible and accountable for their actions. They must regularly appear in court, be sober and complete the prescribed treatment (typically 12-24 months) before they are released from the program. They are typically still convicted of a crime.

Problem-solving courts’ holistic approach to rehabilitation impacts every part of a participant’s life and can have a dramatic effect on the most pressing issues facing our commonwealth. Do we not have a collective responsibility for the injuries our veterans have sustained as a result of their service? Do we not have a responsibility to make sure those with mental illnesses are treated? Should either be further stigmatized because of a felony conviction that was objectively caused by their service or a disease?

If Sparks had participated in a veterans treatment court, he might not be living with multiple felony convictions today — constantly in fear that someone else will find out that he is a felon or that his understanding employer will let him go and he’ll be unable to find a new job.

Action versus reaction. It is time that we as a commonwealth stop reflexively reacting to crime and begin to address the root causes of criminality. If the PSCA is enacted, we can stop criminalizing mental illness, offer a helping hand to our injured and justice-involved veterans and continue to build strong, healthy and safe communities.

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Laurie Forbes Neff is director and managing attorney at the Clinic for Legal Assistance to Servicemembers and Veterans, George Mason University School of Law, and was a member of the Supreme Court of Virginia committee which recommended the enactment of legislation for problem-solving courts. Contact her at lneff@gmu.edu.

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