DC Public Safety Radio
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See the radio program at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/2015/11/the-growth-of-veterans-treatment-courts/
Leonard Sipes: From the nation’s capital, this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host, Leonard Sipes. Ladies and gentlemen, veterans treatment court is the topic for today. We have three extraordinary guests before our microphones. Aaron Arnold is the Director of Treatment Court programs at the Center for Court Innovation. Aaron oversees the Center’s national training and technical assistance for drug courts. Greg Crawford is a Correctional Program Specialist at the Community Services Division at the National Institute of Corrections. Greg’s experience prior to the National Institute of Corrections includes over fourteen years as a probation department person and a community based mental health agency expert. We have Ruby Qazilbash. Did I get that right or did I screw that up? Qazilbash.
Ruby Qazilbash: Qazilbash. Good enough.
Leonard Sipes: Ruby is the Associate Deputy Director for Justice Systems Policy at the Bureau of Justice Assistance within the US Department of Justice. She leads a team of policy staff in program and policy development aimed at improving safe local and tribal justice systems. To all three of you, welcome to DC Public Safety.
Greg Crawford: Thanks, Len.
Leonard Sipes: Veterans treatment court, it is exploding. It is growing like wildfire throughout the United States, so Greg, give me an overview of what veteran’s treatment court is.
Greg Crawford: Basically what a veterans treatment court is, is a hybrid integration of drug court and mental health court that serves military veterans, and sometimes active duty personnel. The first veterans court was implemented in 2008 up in Buffalo, New York by Judge Robert Russell, and since then, there’s been over three hundred implemented across this country.
Leonard Sipes: That’s an amazing amount of growth. Aaron, to my knowledge, I can’t think of another criminal justice program that has grown as much or as fast as veterans treatment courts.
Aaron Arnold: I’d have to agree with you. I mean drug courts have been around longer, and there are more of them, but they didn’t grow quite as fast as we’re seeing veterans treatment courts grow today.
Leonard Sipes: Ruby, the role of the Bureau of Justice Assistance within the US Department of Justice, you are the Associate Deputy Director for Justice Systems Policy. Obviously, you’re here to support BJA’s involvement in veterans treatment courts, correct?
Ruby Qazilbash: That’s correct. BJ provides training, funding. In fact, we’ve set up almost two hundred veteran treatment court teams around the country, training soup to nuts, making sure that those team members understand what their roles and responsibilities are, that they come out of that training with a policy and procedures manual, and they’re ready to go and open those doors to veterans. We, also, provide federal funding to the drug court programs, solicitation, and veteran treatment courts are eligible to come in for federal funding, federal grants to support the implementation of these courts around the country.
Leonard Sipes: I can’t think of any other program where everybody’s on board. Everybody’s enthusiastic, everybody wants this to occur. The question is why? Why is it growing so fast? Why is everybody on board with this?
Aaron Arnold: I would say because they work, Len. First of all, veterans are not typically criminals prior to their military service, and some veterans have experienced things and done things that most of us can’t imagine, and they come home, and sometimes they struggle. Sometimes they self-medicate with alcohol and drugs, and they, unfortunately, find themselves involved in the criminal justice system, and really what veterans treatment courts do is they’re an opportunity to intervene in the lives of veterans before things escalate for them in the system. What they’re doing, is they’re restoring veterans’ lives. They’re reducing recidivism. They’re enhancing public safety, and saving taxpayer dollars, so it’s checking all the boxes.
Leonard Sipes: Is there an issue with veterans and a crime?
Aaron Arnold: Well, typically, like I said, veterans are not criminals prior to their service, and they’re coming home and they’re really struggling with post traumatic stress disorder, and traumatic brain injury, and it’s taking them down a path, and I think that’s why it’s so critical for our system to intervene before they go down a deeper path.
Leonard Sipes: People so far are seemingly bullish about veterans treatment courts, and the question either goes out to Aaron or to Ruby. Most people seem to feel that they do better than the typical drug courts or the typical treatment courts, that veterans, given the chance, have an opportunity to rearrange their lives and straighten their lives out, but they need assistance. First of all, am I right with the perception that veterans treatment courts seem to have greater potential than other specialty treatment courts?
Ruby Qazilbash: There are obviously a proliferation of drug courts around the country. As Aaron said, that movement has been building and growing for the past twenty-five years, but, since then, we’ve, also, seen other specialty or problem solving courts address the special needs of individuals in our communities, including mental health courts, and then, of course, veterans treatment courts. I think that the issue is to find the diversion opportunity. You want to reduce incarceration and get people the help and the services that they need, so they can lead productive lives, crime free, to find the right intervention for them, and the project that we’re talking about today we hope is going to lead us down that road.
Do they see equal or better outcomes as drug courts that we know of? I think more research, for sure, needs to be done, but outcomes are looking good so far.
Leonard Sipes: Everybody seems to be very encouraged about that. Everybody seems to be very encouraged in terms of the outcomes thus far. We’ve had 2.5 million men and women serve in our country since 9/11, and 1.5 million serving overseas. Veterans come home. They struggle with combat related issues. As Greg said a little while ago, PTSD, major depression, homelessness, suicide, and some are ending up with us, within the criminal justice system. This is not just a matter of good criminal justice policy. This has a moral issue attached to it as well, does it not, Greg?
Greg Crawford: I think so. Absolutely. Here’s the deal, like you said, we had 2.5 million serve our country since 9/11, and really it’s a volunteer service. These people are serving our country as volunteers, so the rest of us don’t have to go overseas and fight our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or wherever they are, so absolutely, I think we have an obligation to try to help them.
Leonard Sipes: Where are we going with all of this? The Bureau of Justice Assistance in the US Department of Justice is providing funding for the expansion of drug court. We are talking about evaluating drug court. We are talking about creating specialized instruments for drug court. The National Institute of Corrections is coming out at a certain point with a white paper that describes what best practices in drug court.
Greg Crawford: Yeah. What we want to talk about here today is … The white paper actually served as a platform for all of NIC’s veterans specific initiatives. We’ve, also, done a three hour live satellite broadcast on veterans treatments court, and, also, with that, I contacted Ruby over at BJA about a potential collaboration to develop a risk needs assessment tool that factors in trauma for justice involved veterans. As a former probation officer, back in the day I would get cases, and these veterans coming in from joint base Lewis McChord over in Pierce Country, Washington. They would be ordered to do domestic violence treatment, and nothing on the court order would touch their underlying issues of PTSD and TBI that I think are a major cause of them bleeding into the system, and that’s why we partnered on this project, because we thought there needs to be some science behind what we’re doing in these veterans treatment courts. I don’t want to steal Aaron’s thunder, but I’ll let him talk a little bit about the project.
Leonard Sipes: Go ahead, Aaron.
Aaron Arnold: Thanks, Greg. Greg hit it on the head. We’re trying to put some science behind what veterans treatment courts are doing, and I should just give a little context to say that in the drug court field, for a number of years now, courts have been eager to adopt evidence based risk need assessments, and all that means is to use a standardized set of questions that courts or probation departments will ask to offenders who are coming into the court system to try to identify what are their actual needs that we can help to address to reduce their risk of re-offending, and those tools exist. There are many of them that are being used in the drug court context. They have been proven over and over again in the research to help courts do a better job of getting people the appropriate kinds of supervision and treatment they need, and reduce their long term risk of re-offending.
What has not existed, up till now, is a specialized risk need tool designed specifically for the justice involved veterans population. That’s what this project is intended to create. Here at the Center for Court Innovation … We’re a nonprofit justice reform organization in New York City, and what we’re doing is, with our in house research department, is to create the first evidence based risk need assessment tools for use in veterans treatment courts.
Leonard Sipes: It’s important that whatever risk instrument that we come up with, that it really works with that particular population, whether it be juveniles, whether it be women, whether it be men, whether it be adults, whether it be pre-trial, whether it be supervision, adult supervision, whether it be … It doesn’t matter. The whole idea is to create a risk instrument that is going to be germane to that particular population. What is unique, Aaron, about the veterans and in a risk instrument?
Aaron Arnold: That’s exactly right. We’ve actually spent the last twelve months working, like I said, with our in house researchers, with our partner agencies around the country, like the National Association of Drug Court Professionals and Justice for Vets, other organizations who work in this field, as well as a hand picked committee of experts in the field, who are helping us to identify what are the specific unique factors that veterans bring to the justice system, and how can we reflect those in a new evidence based risk need tool. Some of those we’ve already talked about: the exposure to combat trauma and the resulting post traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and other mental health issues that emerge from that, the substance abuse and other behavioral health factors that can emerge after folks return home. Making sure that all of those very specific needs are reflected in the instrument itself, so that courts have the tools they need to make sure that folks are getting the appropriate levels of supervision and treatment.
The tools are essentially done at this point. We’re excited. After a year, we’ve drafted up the tools, and they’re ready to be tested in the field.
Leonard Sipes: Ruby, this is exciting. You represent the Bureau of Justice Assistance from the US Department of Justice, and within the Obama Administration, what they have done through federal agencies and through funding to state, local, tribal agencies, is to expand the concept of alternatives to traditional ways of conducting criminal justice. This is exciting, because it’s moving in a dozen different directions. We are basically reinventing the way that we operate the criminal justice system on a wide variety of platforms. The veterans treatment court is just one of them.
Ruby Qazilbash: Without a doubt. I think we know so much more about what contributes to criminal behavior, and what this project lends itself towards is furthering to narrow that, and to get the right people into the right program at the right time, and I think Aaron hit on it when he said that the intention for this risk and needs assessment is to figure out for the individual that you’re presented with in that courtroom and that day.
With using an assessment tool that’s accurate for that population and for that person’s peers. What is their risk level, so that we can assign supervision accordingly. We don’t want to over supervise. We don’t want to under supervise. We want to get it right. For needs assessment, what kinds of potentially substance abuse treatment might that individual need, what kind of mental health counseling. What should that look like? What should the dosage be, so that we can give people what they need. The point here is to increase their functional outcomes, the way that they behave and act in society in a way that’s beneficial to them and to the rest of us, and to reduce recidivism, thereby enhancing public safety for the community that those folks live in.
Leonard Sipes: The larger question is that it becomes a larger issue. Veterans treatment courts go hand in hand with regular treatment courts, go hand in hand with all sorts of opportunities and endeavors that the federal government, and state governments and local governments are trying to employ nowadays to operate the criminal justice system differently, to intervene in the lives of individuals earlier, to defer them or to keep them out of the mainstream criminal justice system, if at all humanly possible, to provide treatment services in prison, and on post release.
This is part of a larger effort, correct?
Ruby Qazilbash: Without a doubt. It is the move towards risk based decision making, while striking a balance between reducing unnecessary incarceration and maintaining or increasing public safety. That’s the goal.
Leonard Sipes: Because every governor in every state has had a conversation with their state public safety secretaries or their directors of corrections, and basically said look, the correctional budget is now the second largest component of our state budget. We cannot continue to bring in the numbers of people that we have. It’s impossible to sustain this level of funding, so we need alternatives. You can look at that from a cost effectiveness point of view. You have now both sides of the political aisle. It doesn’t matter what side you’re on. They are now supportive, because they want a bigger bang for tax paid dollars. They want more results.
This is all part of a unique and growing and interesting aspect to criminal justice administration. I’ve been in this system for forty-five years, and I have never seen what I’m seeing now in terms of that emphasis on programs, that emphasis on treatment, that emphasis on is there another way of handling this person besides simply throwing them in prison, so the veterans treatment court seems to be a natural outcome of that. It’s the growth that astounds me for veterans treatment courts.
Aaron Arnold: Yeah. You talked about the numbers. Since the early 80s, we’ve seen nearly a four hundred percent increase in the US prison population, and I think the writing was on the wall. I think everybody’s on board that alternatives are critical to turning this thing around for our country. We have basically one in thirty-five adults under some from of correctional supervision, whether it be prison, probation, parole, so something needed to be done. When this first court was implemented in 2008, we immediately started seeing results, and not only is it effective, it’s a humane way to go about treating our veterans.
Leonard Sipes: We’re more than halfway through the program, ladies and gentlemen. We’re doing a show today on veterans treatment courts with the National Institute of Corrections, and with the Bureau of Justice Assistance, and with the Center for Court Innovation. Aaron Arnold is Director of Treatment Programs for the Center for Court Innovation, Greg Crawford, is a Correctional Programs Specialist at the Community Services Division of the National Institute of Corrections; and Ruby Qazilbash … I hope I’m not screwing that name up. Ruby is the Associate Deputy Director for Justice Systems Policy at the Bureau of Justice Assistance within the US Department of Justice.
Where do we see drug treatment courts going. Aaron, I’m going to start off with you. For the next ten years, if we’ve had this explosive growth, and since 2008, we have three hundred veterans treatment courts throughout the country. Where does that take us ten years from now?
Aaron Arnold: I think part of the trend is what we’re discussing here today, is to make science based decisions. There’s tons and tons of research from the last twenty-five years on drug treatment courts, and we can be very confident, at this point, that drug treatment courts, when implemented correctly, reduce the risk of re-offending, keep people in treatment longer, promote recovery, and all of the things that we’re trying to accomplish in the justice system.
There is less research, as Ruby mentioned earlier, that’s focused specifically on veterans treatment courts, so one area that we need to continue to push in the next decade is to bolster the amount of research that’s specifically geared toward veterans treatment courts, verify, as we’ve done in the drug court world, that we’re getting the results that we want to see, and create tools, like we’re creating in this veterans treatment court enhancement initiative, to help these courts make decisions that are rooted in science and help to get the best long term outcomes for the justice involved veteran population.
Leonard Sipes: I would imagine somewhere along the line what we want is for every court system in the United States to have a veterans treatment court component to it, correct? I mean if we’re expanding the reach of the criminal justice system into dozens of different specialty courts … Here in Washington, DC there are probably seven specialty courts dealing with domestic violence, dealing with child custody cases. This is something that we see, I would imagine, expanding to every court system in the United States. I would imagine if there’s any particular group of individuals that people feel some sense of allegiance towards, it would be our veterans.
Aaron Arnold: I think you’re right, and as you mentioned earlier, there seems to be very broad based support for these courts, even more so than some of the other specialized court models, and I think we’ve already established that part of the reason for that is a desire to help veterans who have volunteered, as Greg was saying earlier, and risked their own lives to protect all of us, so there’s definitely plenty of reason that we want to see these courts spread, and, again, part of the reason for creating these specialized risk need tools and other tools to support these courts, is so that we can facilitate their spread in all kinds of state, and county, and local jurisdictions that want to create them.
Greg Crawford: Len, real quick. I just wanted to say that, building off what Aaron just talked about, NIC’s vision for this, and I’m hoping BJA and CCI, I’m pretty confident to say that this is our vision, to have this risk needs assessment tool and protocol be the standard for the field. We’re trying to, as we talked about, develop the science, and we want to make this available to the field, and think Ruby can talk about the funding opportunities that would support this tool.
Leonard Sipes: Ruby.
Ruby Qazilbash: Happy to. Every year, the Bureau of Justice Assistance releases a drug court program solicitation, and courts can come in for funding to implement brand new programs, to enhance existing programs, and that means ramping up your capacity and the types of services that are being provided, to ramp up the number, the percent of the arrestee population for whom this is a good option, has the option to go through a drug court or a veteran treatment court program.
I, also, just wanted to mention that for the past couple of years, the Bureau of Justice Assistance has seen a new appropriation, a line item to the tune of five million dollars that is aimed just for support for veteran treatment courts, so we’re, also, seeing an increase in appropriations to be able to support these courts.
Leonard Sipes: Where are we going with this in terms of growth? Right now, we’re talking about five million dollars from the Bureau of Justice Assistance. You agree with me, that we would like to see this in every jurisdiction in the United States, and an opportunity for every veteran to partake in these sort of programs?
Ruby Qazilbash: I think that is a noble goal. I think we’ve got thirty-three hundred counties around the country. We’ve got pretty close to that in the number of drugs courts, and I think you need to look at your population. If you have a sizable amount of veterans, then it makes sense to develop a track where you can attach these resources, and we should talk about some of the things that make veteran treatment courts different than drug courts.
Leonard Sipes: Please.
Ruby Qazilbash: Greg started out by saying these are hybrid drug and mental health courts. I think that is one potential difference. There are a lot of resources and partnership that come from the Department of Veteran Affairs, and access to benefits, and supports, and services through the VA that are attached to these courts in most jurisdictions. The idea, the mentor is new, and I think is not a part of most drug courts around the country, and I think a theme or a trend, and Aaron or Greg could talk more about this, but the people that choose and self-select to work in veterans treatment courts oftentimes are veterans themselves: judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and others that support the services within that court, so there’s a camaraderie, and there’s a feeling as if we want to support our fellow veterans to heal, to recover, and to stay crime free.
Leonard Sipes: I have a friend of mine, who fought at the Battle of Iwo Jima during the Second World War. He’s a veteran, and he’s not being taken care of in terms of his medical needs, and I was assisting him in terms of trying to get him the attention that he was looking for, and I didn’t have to search far. All the veterans’ groups that I contacted and said, “Look, we’ve got a World War II ex-Marine who fought at the Battle of Iwo Jima and survived, and he needs help,” and, boy, that help came rather quickly, so within the veterans community, there is support across the board for fellow veterans, is there not?
Aaron Arnold: Absolutely. What we’re seeing when we go out into the field is, as Ruby mentioned, mentors. There’s not a shortage of mentors out there. Veterans volunteer to help other veterans, and they live by the motto to leave no veteran behind. You go into the courtroom, and a veteran is immediately assigned a mentor, and the mentor will take him in the hallway and they’ll start talking to them. They’re not part of the veterans treatment court team. They’re there to help them through the labyrinth of the criminal justice system.
A veterans treatment team will consist of a judge, a prosecutor, defense, probation, court coordinator, and critical to the success of these programs is the US Department of Veterans Affairs and the community treatment providers. Basically it’s the court system, the VA, and the community treatment providers working together for a common goal, but the mentors are really as, Judge Russell called them, in our live broadcast, the secret sauce. They’re the ones that really make this thing work. They fill in the gaps, get them a mattress, a bus ticket, help them overcome the obstacles, have a cup of coffee and just talk them through it, and that is very unique to these diversionary programs. That doesn’t happen, as Ruby mentioned, in other courts.
Leonard Sipes: No. We have our own mentors here at the court services of the federal supervision agency, but there is not enough of them. That’s the thing that I find really interesting about veterans treatment courts is that there always seems to be that league of veterans, who are willing to help this individual in trouble.
Aaron Arnold: Yeah. I’ve been out to several sites. I’ve been to a couple of national conferences, and without a doubt, everybody I’ve come across is not just collecting a paycheck.
Leonard Sipes: But theses are volunteers. This is what I’m talking about.
Aaron Arnold: I’m talking about both the people working in the courts, and, also, the volunteers. Volunteers are committed to helping other veterans.
Leonard Sipes: This is a mission. This is just not a criminal justice program. This is a mission. These are people who are wildly enthusiastic about veterans treatment courts. This is something that’s growing rapidly. Fastest growing program I’ve seen, and different people that I’ve talked to about this concept, you can have an individual veteran before the bench, and find himself or herself with not just a mentor, but two, three, four, five mentors. That’s exciting, and that’s why I’m predicting that veterans treatment courts is going to continue to grow like wildfire, and continue to show good results, because of that treatment team, because of the volunteers who are willing to help that individual. Aaron.
Aaron Arnold: I agree with you. One of the things that we see at the Center for Court Innovation in the last twenty years, is a little bit of fatigue sometimes with the fact that, as you mentioned earlier, the creation of all these specialized court parts. There are people who wonder why do we need so many specialized court parts, and are we going to have a specialized court part for everything under the sun, but with these veterans courts, whatever you’re feeling on that question, is with these veterans treatment courts, we see that having veterans together with other veterans, supported by mentors, supported by, as Ruby said, staff and judges who themselves oftentimes are mentors and have requested to be part of this team, it creates a special environment that gets better results, and, at the end of the day, I think it’s hard to argue against a system that gets better results and treats people in a more thoughtful, humane manner, and gets them the support that they need.
Leonard Sipes: Judges seem to have a magical place within the criminal justice system. We, within the adult correctional system, can intervene in the lives of individuals all day long, but nothing seems to get the attention of the individual before the bench as a judge does, so a very involved judge seems to be the secret sauce in some ways, as to why specialty courts work. Anybody want to take a shot at that?
Ruby Qazilbash: That bears out in the research. I think some of the strongest research effects are seen in judicial interaction with a participant in that court program. It is the way that they interact, the eye contact that they make, the amount of time that they spend with that individual, remembering personal details about the individual’s life, celebrating successes or milestones that they’ve been able to reach has borne out to be very impactful, and definitely have better outcomes for those folks.
Leonard Sipes: I would guess as well is that the reason why this is growing like wildfire, is that judges themselves seem to have that magic ability to bring the entire criminal justice system together for change in ways that others within the executive branch cannot. Judges have a way of producing these specialty courts or veterans treatment courts. Maybe it’s because of the judges themselves that this is growing as quickly as it is.
Greg Crawford: That’s exactly right. In fact, you said exactly what I was thinking, is that … You were asking earlier about where do we see the growth going. In many cases, it is the motivated judge at the local level, who is a veteran, or has family members who are veterans and has a special place in their heart for this kind of work. They’re oftentimes the ones who are driving the creation of these programs and making them successful, rather than having a statewide administrative decision making process. These are oftentimes locally driven initiatives, because people care about serving their veterans.
Leonard Sipes: Ruby, we’ve got about a minute left.
Ruby Qazilbash: I was just going to add, I think this is an area that we can learn from drug courts. Drug courts began with a leader judge in that community or judicial district, that got a team together and used the power, the authority of the bench to be able to do that. When drug courts became institutionalized in communities, and that started to be a rotational judgeship, or you had people that didn’t self-select into those positions, sometimes you lose some of that secret sauce, and so I think we need to learn from the drug court movement, and make sure that we’re setting up veterans treatment courts in a way that they’re sustainable.
Leonard Sipes: Ruby, you’ve got the final word. I find this to be a fascinating concept, an encouraging concept and I really want to thank Aaron Arnold, the Director of Treatment Programs at the Center of Court Innovation, Greg Crawford at the National Institute of Corrections, and Ruby Qazilbash, the Deputy Director for Justice Systems Policy at the Bureau of Justice Assistance. Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety. We appreciate your comments. We even appreciate your criticisms, and we want everybody to have themselves a very, very pleasant day.