A National Survey of Veterans Treatment Court Actors

Date01 March 2021
Published date01 March 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2021, Vol. 32(2) 132 –161
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0887403420911414
A National Survey of Veterans
Treatment Court Actors
Samantha Luna1 and Allison D. Redlich1
Several controversies surround Veterans Treatment Courts (VTCs), such as
excluding veterans who commit violent offenses and requiring a direct relationship
between a veteran’s charges and mental health diagnosis. The aim of this study was
to examine VTC actors’ perceptions of these issues via a national survey. VTC
Judges, Coordinators, and Veterans Affairs liaisons were presented two randomly
assigned hypothetical clients and asked their perceptions of the hypothetical clients’
eligibility for VTC. The violent crime committed by the clients and their mental
health diagnoses were manipulated in these scenarios. Participants were also asked
for their perceptions of VTC issues and to describe the current practices of their
VTCs. Results indicated participants were supportive of the domestic violence client’s
participation in VTC, regardless of diagnosis, however most were not supportive of
the involuntary manslaughter clients’ participation. Implications for future research
and policy are discussed.
veterans, violent crime, specialty courts
When reintegrating back into society military veterans face many challenges, such as
relating to individuals who have not served in the military, reconnecting with family
and friends, returning to a job, and adjusting to life without a clear chain of command
(i.e., fixed structure) and to a different pace of work and life (Veterans Affairs Mental
Health Services, n.d.). These reentry challenges can also be confounded by a veterans’
experiences of war, mental health issues, and alcohol dependency (Brown, 2011).
Increased difficulty reintegrating back into society and untreated mental health and
substance abuse also puts veterans at a heightened risk for criminal justice involvement
1George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Samantha Luna, Department of Criminology, Law and Society, George Mason University, 4400 University
Dr., Fairfax, VA 22030, USA.
Email: sluna2@gmu.edu
911414CJPXXX10.1177/0887403420911414Criminal Justice Policy ReviewLuna and Redlich
Luna and Redlich 133
(Brown, 2011). For example, veterans with traumatic brain injuries (TBI) or posttrau-
matic stress disorder (PTSD) who report coinciding anger/irritability are at an increased
risk for arrest and criminal justice involvement (Elbogen et al., 2012). To help serve
criminally charged veterans with symptoms of mental health disorders, cognitive
impairments, and/or substance abuse problems, Veterans Treatment Courts (VTCs)
were established about a decade ago.
VTCs, which are modeled after both Drug and Mental Health Courts, act as an
alternative to the traditional court model for eligible veterans (National Center for
State Courts, 2018). As an alternative to incarceration, veterans in VTC programs are
connected to treatment services, required to attend regular status hearings and be rou-
tinely drug tested, and connected to a volunteer veteran mentor for the duration of the
program (National Center for State Courts, 2018). VTCs have expanded at a rapid rate
since their creation in 2008 (Flatley et al., 2017), though, no standard structure for the
courts has been established (Cartwright, 2011). In fact, one VTC Judge was described
as being allowed to set up his VTC “any way he wanted” (American Bar Association,
2017). Inconsistency in the structure and procedures of VTCs has contributed to sev-
eral controversies surrounding these specialty courts (Yerramsetti et al., 2017). The
aim of this study is to better understand perceptions surrounding controversial VTC
issues from the actors directly involved in these specialty courts. Whereas past research
has addressed the practices and outcomes of VTCs (Erickson, 2016; Johnson et al.,
2016; Shannon et al., 2017; Tsai, Finlay, Flatley, et al., 2017; Tsai, Flatley, Wesley,
et al., 2017), to our knowledge, no research has addressed perceptions of controversial
VTC issues from the actors involved.
The first VTC in the United States was created by Judge Robert Russell in 2008. Judge
Russell created the Buffalo, New York VTC with a mission to “successfully habilitate
veterans by diverting them from the traditional criminal justice system and providing
them with the tools they need in order to lead a productive and law-abiding lifestyle”
(Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court, n.d.). Judge Russell created the first VTC by
building upon his experiences presiding over both the Drug and Mental Health Courts
in his community; consequently, VTCs share many characteristics with these specialty
courts (Russell, 2015). There are now over 400 VTCs across the United States (Flatley
et al., 2017) and VTCs can be classified as their own separate court, or as a veterans
docket in a drug court, mental health court, or traditional criminal court (Johnson
et al., 2016). Like other specialty courts, research has found that both the structure and
function of these specialty courts varies considerably (Baldwin, 2015; Douds et al.,
2017; Erickson, 2016; Johnson et al., 2016).
Johnson et al. (2016) conducted a national inventory of VTCs in the United States
and found that court procedures and veterans’ eligibility requirements can vary signifi-
cantly by jurisdiction. Eligibility requirements considered by the courts can include
military discharge status (e.g., honorable vs dishonorable), military-related mental
health conditions, combat experience, criminal history, prior participation in specialty
courts, and the relationship between a veteran’s criminal charge and military service

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