If You Build It, Will Vets Come? An Identity Theory Approach to Expanding Veterans’ Treatment Court Participation

Date01 September 2020
Published date01 September 2020
Subject MatterArticles
If You Build It, Will Vets
Come? An Identity Theory
Approach to Expanding
Veterans’ Treatment Court
Eileen M. Ahlin
and Anne S. Douds
Veterans’ treatment courts (VTCs) provide a veteran-centric diversion option to traditional court
case processing. These courts have proliferated across the United States without much consider-
ation about whether veterans want, or need, a specialty court. In this article, we investigate the
underlying importance of a veteran identity in the decision to enroll in a VTC. Based on in-depth
qualitative interviews with veterans, we identify four primary implications for practitioners. First,
veterans are ashamed of their criminal justice involvement. Second, they are concerned about
increased punitiveness by criminal justice actors, particularly law enforcement, because of their
veteran status. Third, veterans perceive the VTC process to bestow upon them stigma and reta-
liation. Fourth, veterans resist VTC involvement for fear of dishonoring their branch of service. To
expand enrollment, results demonstrate that practitioners should consider how veterans reconcile
their veteran and offender identities when considering VTC enrollment.
veterans’ treatment court, veterans’ court, specialty courts, offender identity, justice-involved
veterans, diversion
Since the mid-2000s, veterans’ treatment courts (VTCs), which blend traditional criminal court
procedures with mental health and substance abuse treatment, have proliferated across the country
with relatively little critical consideration of whether veterans want or need the veteran-centric
support provided by VTCs. Criminal justice professionals and veterans advocates celeb rate the
benefits of VTCs, while VTC judges and court personnel regularly tout their positive, panacea-
like effects (Yerramsetti et al., 2017). However, evidence of desirable outcomes is more nuanced,
School of Public Affairs, Penn State Harrisburg, Middletown, PA, USA
Gettysburg College, PA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Eileen M. Ahlin, School of Public Affairs, Penn State Harrisburg, 160W Olmsted Building, 777 W. Harrisburg Pike,
Middletown, PA 17057, USA.
Email: ema105@psu.edu
Criminal Justice Review
2020, Vol. 45(3) 319-336
ª2020 Georgia State University
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734016820914075
and most studies have only focused on processes and outcomes related to VTC participation (Hartley
& Baldwin, 2019; Johnson et al., 2015; Knudsen & Wingenfeld, 2016; Tsai et al., 2016). More
recent research has redirected attention upon fundamental principles and critical assessment of the
propriety of these courts as well as their culture (Baldwin & Brooke, 2019; Douds & Ahlin, 2019;
Stacer & Solinas-Saunders, 2020). Wh ile this research is informative, up to now, far too little
practical attention has been paid to how veterans view these specialty courts and how they come
to understand VTC as a viable option.
It previously has been observed that military socialization is a motivating factor for enrolling in
VTC as they are partly founded on the military ethos of “leave no one behind” prominent in military
culture (Ahlin & Douds, 2016; Douds & Ahlin, 2019). Beyond the unifying concept of military
culture to spur participation, there has been no detailed investigation of what veterans consider when
making the decision to opt in to VTC. Further, there is very little known about what identity
contemplation process, if any, veterans go through before opting to enroll in VTC and how identity
formation is shaped by the VTC experience. From a practical standpoint, if practitioners take steps to
understand the veterans’ decision-making process, they can capitalize on it to expand participation
in VTCs.
Whether veterans experience a decision-making proce ss underscores the notion of choice in
VTCs. Veterans can be diverted from a traditional court to the therapeutic VTC environment where
they receive culturally competent programming. Pursuant to most VTC models, veterans may be
recommended for VTC participation, or they can self-identify as veterans and request that they be
considered for VTC eligibility (see Baldwin et al., 2019). Thus, there are at least two means for
veterans to contemplate VTCs and consider their veteran identity as it relates to the criminal justice
system. Veterans are already at risk of struggling with cognitive dissonance among identities when
they are arrested (Murray, 2013). They often find themselves aghast at their actions and the labels
that come with such behavior, having moved from being a contributing member of a highly func-
tional military unit to a “dirtbag” (c f. Douds & Ahlin, 2019). When VTCs become an option,
veterans are forced to consider whether they wish for their veteran status to become inextricably
intertwined with their criminal justice status, which, in turn, may cause additional cognitive dis-
sonance and psychological stress (Murra y, 2013). Their identity as a person invo lved with the
criminal justice system implicitly becomes muddled with their identity as a veteran. It is at this
juncture veterans need to contemplate their desire and willingness to adopt a dual identity of justice-
involved veteran; one that is visibly on display as a VTC participant.
Currently, there is little discussion on whether veteran identity has a role in veterans’ decision-
making processes and eventual choice to enroll in VTC. Relatedly, presen t VTC outreach and
enrollment practices do not account for several things, most notab ly cultural issues concerning
whether veterans even want to pursue VT Cs and whether there is a demand for their veteran-
centric services. Examining veteran identity as a catalyst behind the decision to enroll in VTCs is
important if VTCs are indeed based on cultural identity. To understand veterans’ decision-making
processes, we conducted a qualitative study of veterans given the option to enroll in VTC and apply
identity theory to explain why veterans exercise their choice to enroll in VTC. We selected identity
theory as the lens through which we explore this topic because it emphasizes role-related behaviors
and contextualizes how veteran identity informs veterans’ views of VTCs.
The article is structured as follows. First, we examine the current demand for VTCs by consid-
ering how veterans are identified as potential participants. Second, we explore identity theory to
frame the discussion on how veterans reconcile the dual identities of veteran and person involved
with the criminal justice system. In the third section, we describe the data and methods of the current
study. In the fourth section, the study results are presented, and four themes related to veteran
identity formulation during the VTC decision-making process are described. We conclude the article
with a discussion on practical application of the findings to expand VTC participation.
320 Criminal Justice Review 45(3)

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