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In a 2015 file photo, a veteran visits with his mentor, Wyoming National Guard Master Sgt. Adam Martinez, in Cheyenne, Wyo. The veteran described Martinez as a "battle buddy" and kept in touch with him even after graduating from the local veteran treatment court.
In a 2015 file photo, a veteran visits with his mentor, Wyoming National Guard Master Sgt. Adam Martinez, in Cheyenne, Wyo. The veteran described Martinez as a "battle buddy" and kept in touch with him even after graduating from the local veteran treatment court. (Wyoming National Guard)

WASHINGTON – A measure to increase funding for veteran treatment courts by $3 million was added to a House spending bill Tuesday, signaling early support in Congress for diversion, rather than incarceration, for veterans struggling with mental health and substance abuse disorders.

The House approved an amendment from Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., to boost spending on veteran treatment courts for the next year to $10 million. The courts received $7 million in federal funding this year. Most of that money goes toward training for jurisdictions looking to open new treatment courts.

“Communities all over the country are looking to implement these programs, and what that creates is a tremendous need for training,” said Chris Deutsch, communications director for Justice for Vets. “What we’ve experienced is a growing wait list of jurisdictions that want access to this training. This is funding that supports it.”

Justice for Vets is a division of the National Association for Drug Court Professionals, and it provides training and technical assistance to people who operate veteran treatment courts.

Treatment courts aim to keep veterans from relapsing into criminal behavior by addressing their underlying issues, often mental health conditions or substance abuse. Most courts work with an employee of a local Department of Veterans Affairs facility to link veterans to resources, such as housing, disability compensation and education benefits. The system also relies on volunteer mentors who are often part of local veterans service organizations.

Courts focused specifically on veterans were first opened in 2008. Since then, more than 350 veterans treatment courts have become operational, and another 100 jurisdictions are in the process of creating them, Deutsch said.

“Many of our veterans come home carrying the invisible wounds of war, and these mental health issues can severely impact their lives and sometimes lead them down the wrong path,” Brownley said in a written statement. “I am pleased the House has approved this… to help veterans get a second chance.”

Given President Donald Trump’s talk of wanting a lean budget, Justice for Vets is advocating to at least keep funding steady for next year. With last year’s funding, the organization trained 29 teams.

“In this climate, we’re trying to hold the ground and not lose funding,” Deutsch said. “Really, we’re out there trying to make sure we hold the numbers we had last year. An increase would be fantastic.”

The spending bill to which the amendment was added, H.R. 3354, was being debated in the House on Tuesday. The bill appropriates funds to the Department of Interior, Environmental Protection Agency and components of other departments, including the Department of Justice.

Trump signed a three-month continuing resolution last week that will fund the government until Dec. 8. Congress has until then to come up with a long-term budget, or it could pass another temporary fix.

Wentling.nikki@stripes.com Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.
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