Illinois Holds First Veteran Treatment Court Summit

Chicago –-(ENEWSPF)–May 15, 2015.  The Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Illinois Joining Forces, the American Bar Association, and others gathered today in Chicago to hold the first Veteran Treatment Court Summit, to highlight the importance of VTCs while learning about military culture, treatment methods and persons with mental health disorders who are involved in the criminal justice system in order to better serve those who served our country.

“The goal of the summit is to strengthen the network of existing Veterans Treatment Courts in Illinois by providing a networking opportunity, best practices, and resources that courts may utilize to assist veterans,” said Erica Jeffries, Army veteran and Director, IDVA.  “We can not only educate ourselves, but help to educate court professionals and others working with veterans about military culture and service-related issues.”

Governor Bruce Rauner signed Executive Order 15-14 in February 2015, establishing the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform. The commission will examine the current criminal justice system and sentencing structure to develop comprehensive and evidence-based strategies to improve public safety. It will analyze all aspects of the current system from the initial arrest to re-entry into the community. Some areas the commission will specifically examine are ensuring there is uniformity in sentencing structure, sentencing practices, community supervision and the use of alternatives to prison.

“I am pleased and honored to be here today, representing Governor Bruce Rauner and his commitment to criminal justice reform,” said Jason Barclay, General Counsel to Governor Rauner. “This Veteran Treatment Court Summit and the counties who have embraced this process are already on the way to real and meaningful reforms in how we deal with our veterans in the criminal justice system.”

More than 86 legal professionals, social workers, court personnel, non-for-profit personnel and various officials from county, state, and federal governments attended the event which was held at the offices of Duane Morris, a national and international law firm with more than 110 years of serving clients, supporting communities and helping to bring justice to those in need.

“Our firm is proud to support this cutting-edge program,” said Duane Morris attorney Mike Barnicle. “As a veteran and former U.S. Army JAG officer, I am keenly aware of the legal issues facing veterans and their families.  I fully expect for innovative programs such as this this program and others like it around Illinois will produce effective results to help the men, women and the families who have served our country.”

Day-long summit included presentation from subject matter experts, panel discussions on PTSD and military/veteran culture, and treating and working with veteran defendants with behavioral health disorders.  Attendees share best practices and proven experiences in developing and supporting VTCs, and even heard from a Lake County VTC graduate, a veteran who had completed the diversion program.

The VTC Summit was sponsored by Points of Light, and enjoyed significant support from Illinois Joining Forces Legal Support Working Group, Duane Morris, the American Bar Association, and the Illinois Center of Excellence for Behavioral Health & Justice.

About Illinois Veteran Treatment Courts

VTC is a specialized criminal court docket for veterans who have mental health disorders and/or substance abuse issues. They focus on rehabilitation; they provide drug treatment, job training, education assistance, mental health counseling and other services through the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (USDVA) and other social service agencies. A unique component of the VTC is the use of a non-adversarial approach; a team including a public defender, state’s attorney, probation officer, Judge and a USDVA Veteran Justice Outreach Specialist work to help rehabilitate veterans enrolled in the court program. Illinois enacted the Veterans and Servicemembers Court Treatment Act in 2010

Honorable Robert Russell, Presiding Judge of Buffalo, New York’s Drug Court and Mental Health Court noticed an increased number of veterans appearing before him. He observed how influential a veteran member of his staff was in assisting a veteran in one of his treatments courts. As a result, he founded the first Veterans Treatment Court in 2008 in Buffalo, New York which included a mentorship component. Judge Russell adopted the ten key components needed to run a successful Veterans Treatment Court.

As of June 2014, there are two-hundred and twenty (220) VTCs throughout the county. There are no unified laws or procedures mandating how they operate, although most have adopted the ten key components.

The Community Mental Health Journal released the first published study as of February 2015 on the progress of VTCs nationally.  The study found that Researchers from the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services tracked 86 veterans involved with VTCs, all of whom were diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They found that 89.5% remained arrest-free during their time in the program and concluded that the veterans participating in experienced significant improvement with depression, PTSD and substance abuse as well as with critical social issues including housing, emotional well-being, relationships, and overall functioning.

There are twelve (12) veteran court programs in Illinois; eight (8) VTCs and four (4) Veterans Court Track Programs. A Veterans Court Track Program enrolls qualifying veterans in Drug Court or Mental Health Court based on the veteran’s needs, but does not have a specific docket solely for veterans. The Illinois Statute, the Veterans and Servicemembers Court Treatment Act, gives the Chief Judge of each judicial circuit the power to establish a Veterans Treatment Court.

To be eligible for VTC, the offense must be eligible for probation, and veterans are not eligible if he or she has been convicted of a violent crime within the past ten years. Statistics on Illinois VTC are limited and most are funded through the Adult Illinois Redeploy Program which was enacted through the 2009 Illinois Crime Reduction Act. The program provides monetary incentives to help communities pay for evidence-based, rehabilitative, and supervision services. In turn, counties agree to reduce the number of offenders remanded to prison by 25%. As of 2014, problem-solving courts, including VTC, diverted 1,200 offenders, saving an estimated $20 million dollars to the State of Illinois.