Infantrymen, combat engineers, a highly skilled sniper. Each of them an American hero, and each of them a York county citizen struggling with the legacy of our nation's recent wars.
One year ago, on Feb. 9, 2012, the York County Veterans Treatment Court was founded. Its goal was to assist returning veterans to deal with service-related trauma that led them into trouble with the law.
The Veterans Court program recognizes that military personnel bring home unique stressors from the battlefield that can trigger inappropriate behavior after discharge. Being wounded, seeing a buddy die violently, or having to take another person's life are emotional assaults upon ones mental health that most civilians never experience.
Experience has shown that drug and alcohol abuse are frequent long-term consequences of wartime service, as soldiers try to numb themselves against horrific nightmares and memories. Mental health issues likewise come home from the battlefield. A road rage incident on Interstate 83 can trace its origin back to convoy operations in Iraq, where hyper-vigilant troops had to react instinctively to any possible threat in order to survive.
One year after the veterans treatment court's founding, 16 York County veterans are in the program, with another six being reviewed for admission. Their offenses range from driving under the influence to assault. The court and our community have learned many lessons from the substantial progress these veterans have made.
First, we have learned that the behavioral health and substance abuse consequences of wartime service often do not appear until months after a service member has returned home.
In the past, the courts treated veterans like any other offender, without bothering to understand the genesis of why they were getting into trouble.
We did not ask why a law-abiding person who had met the high entry standards for military service and who served with honor was now a drug abuser or acting out violently. That lack of attention to the origins of crime favored a philosophy primarily focused on punishment, rather than meaningful treatment and rehabilitation.
Second, we've learned that treating veterans for the unseen wounds they have developed in our nation's service is not only morally correct -- it makes good fiscal sense. Treating veterans is a third of the cost of locking them up. This figure also does not include the significant indirect savings that accrue when families stay together, do not lose their home, and kids have the benefit and stability of a two-parent household.
Prison tears families apart, leading to greater tax burdens; treatment keeps families together and the veteran working and contributing to the tax base.
Third, we have learned rehabilitation can exist alongside discipline. The Veterans Court is not a free pass. Veterans in the program go to jail if they violate the rules. Very serious crimes such as sex offenses or homicide are not admitted in the first place. The Veterans Court approach holds the service member responsible for their actions, but also seeks to get to the underlying root of the misconduct and treat it so there will not be repeat offenses in the future.
That treatment includes PTSD and other mental health counseling through the Veterans Administration, AA and Narcotics Anonymous programs, strict oversight by probation, and weekly in-person reporting to the court on rehabilitation progress.
Those in treatment courts are often subjected to greater demands and requirements from the court than those sentenced through normal channels.
The Veterans Treatment Court is working. I have seen servicemen who could not function in civilian society anymore change from substance abusing, tightly wound tragedies that their own families did not recognize into thoughtful, sober, and contributing members of society. Treatment is not easy and there can be stumbles along the way. But this judicial philosophy that seeks to work toward true rehabilitation and treatment is making a difference. Nationwide those in veterans court have a roughly 95 percent success rate (measured by no repeat offenses), as opposed to 55 percent for other criminal defendants.
Finally, we have learned that justice is not dependent on the number of jail days ordered, but upon how few jail days can be ordered, while still preserving public safety and rehabilitating those who have strayed from acceptable behavior.
-- Craig T. Trebilcock is a York County Common Pleas Court judge in charge of the Veterans Court.