Military service can leave veterans coping with not only severe physical disabilities but also lasting psychological trauma. The impact of these conditions can make them more likely to commit crimes. Some states and counties have recognized that veterans often are dealing with special circumstances, and they may not deserve to be punished as harshly as ordinary defendants. Thus, they have established special Veterans Treatment Courts. These courts are less intimidating than regular courts, and judges tend to be more sympathetic to veterans than ordinary judges would be to ordinary defendants. Judges are usually familiar with the special challenges that veterans face. VA representatives may attend the proceedings to help the judge understand the veteran’s situation and advise the veteran about their right to benefits, which could help them avoid further crimes.
Veterans Treatment Courts are meant to focus on rehabilitation and treatment rather than punishment. They are generally established at the county level, but a handful of states have established statewide Veterans Treatment Courts. If this type of court hears a veteran’s case, it will allow them to get their charges dropped if they complete the prescribed treatment and rehabilitation program. The court sometimes will provide a mentor, who can support the veteran in working through their challenges and advise them on applying for benefits. Some types of crimes may not be eligible for Veterans Treatment Courts, often including sex crimes, violent crimes, and serious felonies.
Special Issues Involving Veterans with PTSD
One of the most common conditions from which veterans suffer is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This may play a role in a criminal case if a veteran is accused or charged. Prosecutors may offer a more lenient plea bargain to a veteran with PTSD, understanding the impact of their condition. If the veteran goes to trial, they might be able to craft a defense based on their PTSD. They must be able to show that they actually have PTSD and that their actions were affected by their condition. A defense such as insanity or self-defense might be based on PTSD. (However, you should be aware that using an insanity defense will not result in your release. You likely will be confined in a mental health facility instead.)
If you suffer from PTSD and have been convicted of a crime, you may be able to appeal a conviction if the court did not properly account for your condition. A legal error might occur if a trial judge does not allow a defendant to present a defense based on PTSD. Even if your conviction is upheld, an appellate court might reduce your sentence. PTSD may qualify as a mitigating factor if it was not diagnosed until after you were sentenced. Also, veterans sometimes may be able to raise an ineffective assistance of counsel claim on appeal if their original lawyer was aware of a PTSD diagnosis but failed to mention it when this would have been appropriate in the circumstances. Other options involve asking for a new trial or filing a habeas petition, although both of these forms of relief are very limited. You also should be aware that asking for a new trial can be risky because you may face a harsher sentence in the second trial.
If you have been sentenced already, you may be able to request placement in a jail with a treatment program if you have PTSD. This applies only to veterans who are convicted of crimes under state law, since federal criminal law does not grant this discretion to judges. You may be able to get earlier parole if you can show that you have received treatment for your PTSD in jail, which reduces your risk of committing crimes in the future. Veterans with PTSD also should explore getting their conviction expunged if their crime is eligible for expungement. This may be easier to obtain than in ordinary circumstances.
Transitioning Into the Community After Incarceration
Once a veteran is approaching release from prison, they may want to consider using transitional programs offered by the VA or the Department of Labor to help them get their life back on track. The VA operates the Health Care for Reentry Veterans program, which can assist veterans released from jail with getting housing and employment. It also may provide counseling and social services.
Meanwhile, the Department of Labor offers the Incarcerated Veterans Transition Program. In contrast to the VA program, this program assists veterans indirectly by funding local organizations that in turn support veterans. These organizations also offer assistance with getting housing and employment, as well as counseling. A veteran must have served on active duty and must not have received a dishonorable discharge to be eligible for the Incarcerated Veterans Transition Program. They can start receiving services from it 18 months before they are released from prison.
Some states offer additional programs for veterans who are being released from prison. You can consult the Veterans’ Employment and Training Service for more information on the programs that may be available in your state.