The Missouri House of Representatives has approved an idea to create an alternative to jail or prison time for veterans accused of relatively minor crimes. The proposal would create “veteran’s courts,” much like drug courts, that challenge a defendant to go through a rigorous rehabilitation program rather than go behind bars.
Its sponsor, Representative Jay Barnes (R-Jefferson City), says it will offer a veteran the substance abuse or mental health programs he or she might need after serving in combat. “We know that veterans are capable of being productive citizens, and the point of our criminal justice system where we know somebody who’s a first time offender might have some mental health issue or something that is preventing them from fulfilling their full potential … we need to put them on the right track.”
Like drug courts, the judge, prosecutor and defendant in a case would have to agree on the veteran’s court option. The defendant would then enter treatment programs run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “Those treatment programs take into account their experiences. The VA obviously has a lot of experience with (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and substance abuse problems of soldiers.”
Barnes adds, “We want to get folks into those programs who need help. They served our country, they deserve our help.”
Veteran’s courts will not be an option for those who are accused of heinous crimes. “We’re talking about (driving while intoxicated), we’re talking about a bar fight offense, we’re talking about drug possession for personal use … things like that.”
Veterans would only get one shot to participate in the program. Barnes says, “We can’t expect Missourians to give opportunity after opportunity after opportunity after opportunity, because when somebody knows there’s always the possibility that they get help again, they’re much less likely to actually turn things around.”
Barnes expects the veteran’s court option will also be as challenging for a defendant as drug courts. “Serving your time is easier than going to drug court. That might be hard for some folks to believe, but I’ve seen it … the defendants that are willing to go into the program have recognized they’ve got a problem and they want help.”
He is optimistic the idea would help some who truly need it. “Hopefully they go into that VA program, they get the help they need, they turn their life around and live a productive life for the rest of their years.
The bill has been sent to the Senate for consideration.