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Editorial: Veterans court should be expanded statewide

Old dog tags in a display by the Fort Ord Collections and Archives & Restoration of Fort Ord memorabilia at the Central Coast Veterans Cemetery on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. (Vern Fisher – Monterey Herald)

It is nothing short of heartbreaking to see cases of veterans of the U.S. military fall on hard times once they return home from active duty.

All too often, such military veterans find themselves struggling with mental health and substance abuse problems — often related to service-related issues like post-traumatic stress disorder and other maladies.

These problems can lead to poverty, homelessness and, unfortunately, involvement with the criminal justice system. Given the unique experiences of military veterans, it is important for our criminal justice system to offer alternatives to simply incarcerating them. They deserve credit for serving their country and, one hopes, a second chance.

Toward this end, two legislators — Sen. Richard Roth, D-Riverside, and Assemblywoman Sabrina Cervantes, D-Corona — have introduced legislation to identify best practices in dealing with such cases and to facilitate the expanded use of veterans’ treatment courts. Philanthropist B. Wayne Hughes, Jr. has pledged to personally fund half of the $200,000 needed to support this assessment.

The idea of veterans treatment courts is not a bolt from the blue. Such courts are currently implemented to varying degrees in half of California’s 58 counties, including one in Alameda County. These courts act as a sort of intervention, and they work in a collaborative manner to deal with military veterans in criminal cases where their actions were associated with mental health and substance abuse problems.

Typically, prosecutors, public defenders, service providers and other veterans will work together to give offenders a chance to participate in programming aimed at addressing the underlying causes of their criminal behavior. Participants in veterans’ treatment courts may receive help finding housing and employment, participate in treatment, and are held accountable through judicial oversight.

It is an admirable program and, done correctly, can actually be a cost-effective one.

According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, it costs an average of $71,000 per year to incarcerate someone in state prisons. Considering the high rate of recidivism in California and the inadequacy of funding for rehabilitative services, veterans’ treatment courts can and do serve a vital role in providing cost- and life-saving alternatives to incarceration in the state’s already crowded prison system.

No one is talking about a get-out-of-jail-free card here. Like anyone else, veterans must be held to account for their behavior, but holding people accountable for criminal behavior also must fundamentally serve the interests of justice.

We must not only move beyond the days of associating justice primarily with incarceration, but have in place evidence-based, proven alternatives that give individuals an opportunity to address their problems in a productive way.

We encourage the Legislature to give Senate Bill 339 thoughtful consideration and find a way to make it work. It is the right thing to do.