$4 million in federal funds allotted to open more veteran treatment courts


By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 21, 2016

This story has been updated.

WASHINGTON – Four days after Tim Wynn return home from Iraq, the former Marine Corps sergeant was arrested in Philadelphia on assault charges.

In subsequent years, he was arrested six more times.

For Wynn, who participated in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, there was “really no transition back” from war, he said. He struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse.

After his last arrest, Wynn was referred to the Philadelphia veterans treatment court, where he was required to meet regularly with a judge while attending treatment sessions and undergoing random testing for drugs and alcohol.

The court saved his life, Wynn said.

“I got the attention I needed, the right attention,” he said. “All of a sudden, you’re focused on a mission again. That’s what we’re used to. And, of course, that mission was recovery.”

Now, Wynn tells his story in an effort to help expand veteran treatment courts across the United States, which the Department of Justice announced Tuesday it would give $4 million to establish.

13 more courts

Veterans are more likely to suffer from mental health issues, which can lead to substance abuse and a fall into the criminal justice system, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald said Tuesday.

According to a 2015 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 181,500 veterans were in state and federal prisons or local jails in 2011 and 2012, 43 percent of whom had four or more previous arrests.

Veterans treatment courts aim to keep veterans, particularly ones with mental health or substance abuse issues, from relapsing into criminal behavior. Most courts have a VA-employed coordinator to link veterans to resources such as housing, disability compensation and educational benefits. The system also relies on volunteer mentors.

To help improve veterans’ access to the courts, the Department of Justice will award the $4 million to establish 13 of them in 11 states, Associate Attorney General Bill Baer said Tuesday.

Justice Department grants totaling about $300,000 each will be given to counties and judicial districts in Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Florida, Virginia, Montana, Missouri, California, Texas, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

“They combine rigorous treatment and personal accountability to break the cycle of drug use and criminal behavior,” Baer said.

Tuesday’s announcement was made as part of President Barack Obama’s weeklong campaign on heroin and opioid addiction. More so, the Obama administration is pushing Congress to pass the president’s $1.1 billion proposal to increase access to medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction.

In terms of veterans treatment courts, there are now 463 across the country, though they don’t exist in every state.

Judge Robert Russell Jr. in Buffalo, New York, started the first veterans treatment court in 2008.

“I thought there was something more we should be doing in the criminal justice system for the men and women who served our country,” he said.

Russell and others admitted there isn’t much research or data yet on the courts’ overall effectiveness. However, Russell said more than 200 veterans have graduated from the program that he offers -- only four or five of whom have been arrested again.

Preventing substance abuse

Denise O’Donnell, director of the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, said besides treatment courts, she’d like to see more efforts put toward treating veterans before they’re arrested.

“Ideally, I’d like veterans to be diverted before they come into the criminal justice system,” she said.

Part of an approach to stop veterans from being incarcerated is to prevent them from developing substance abuse issues, McDonald said. He said substance abuse often starts with opioids, which veterans are ten times more likely to use than the average American.

Caroline Clancy, an assistant deputy undersecretary with the VA, said in the past, the VA and other health care systems were “too enthusiastic” with prescribing opioid painkillers.

“All too often, that substance abuse begins with opioids prescribed by [the Department of Defense] or VA doctors for service-related conditions,” McDonald said.

Last year, after Marine Corps veteran Jason Simcakoski died at a VA medical center of a toxic reaction to multiple medications, Congress ordered the VA to more strictly limit opioid prescriptions for chronic pain management.

The VA has cut the number of VA patients on opioids by 25 percent since 2012, McDonald said.

“We owe it to the nation’s veterans to help them end their dependence on opioids and break the downward spiral that all too often ends in homelessness, prison or suicide,” he said.

Twitter: @nikkiwentling