Illustration by Phil Foster
It's a typical Monday morning in Judge Michael Tynan's Los Angeles courtroom, and the 30 people in attendance—including the bailiff—have erupted into loud applause to cheer on a criminal defendant who has brought the judge an "excellent" progress report from his drug treatment program. Though such cheery displays of emotion may be unusual during a legal proceeding, clapping is as much a fixture as the gavel in Tynan's courtroom, one of California's newest veterans courts.
Across the country, this model of jurisprudence—which offers the possibility of treatment rather than incarceration to criminal offenders who have served in the military—has become a popular way for local courts to cope with the growing number of veterans in the criminal justice system.
Tough love is a crucial part of veterans courts, too. Moments after Tynan finishes lauding the one defendant, two men in blue jumpsuits appear before the judge, who sternly demands to know why they "screwed up" by relapsing in their drug use. To get a second chance in his court, Tynan tells the men, they must make gains in treatment.
The need for courtrooms like Tynan's appears great. According to the most recent U.S. Department of Justice statistics, about 140,000 veterans were inmates in state and federal prisons in 2004. And post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries are leading factors contributing to run-ins with the law for many veterans, the DOJ notes. Moreover, instances of PTSD are more common among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans than for those who fought in other wars, when the duration of the conflict is taken into account, according to the National Center for PTSD.
"There's a big impact [on veterans] from nearly a decade at war, and we're seeing it throughout our criminal justice system," says Los Angeles deputy DA John Lonergan, a colonel in the Army Reserves who helped implement the L.A. veterans court.
The idea of a court exclusively for veterans took root in Buffalo, New York, three years ago. The success of that court—with a current docket of 150 veterans, and a recidivism rate of zero—has since spread to more than 40 jurisdictions. In California, counties such as Orange, Los Angeles, Tulare, and Ventura have joined the movement; San Diego hopes to open a veterans court this year.
Based on a "therapeutic model" first pioneered by drug courts, veterans courts bring together social service providers, veterans specialists, prosecutors, and defense lawyers in a nonadversarial process to tailor a service plan to a defendant's particular problems, such as PTSD or substance abuse. In exchange, the defendant enters a guilty plea, and if he or she completes the program prescribed by the court, the offender's sentence may be reduced, or the charges could even be dismissed. If the defendant doesn't follow through, the original criminal charge—and the related penalties or jail time—are reinstated.
Currently, there's no single model for how veterans courts work. In Los Angeles, for example, veterans charged with violent offenses typically aren't eligible to participate. In Orange County, Judge Wendy Lindley accepts violent offenders—but only those who saw combat and who have no history of other serious crimes.
Still, there are at least a couple of common factors across jurisdictions: Offenders must have a clinical reason to participate in the court, and often veterans with a prior criminal record aren't eligible.
Meanwhile, some legal scholars and the American Civil Liberties Union worry that these courts create a two-track criminal justice system, for veterans and nonveterans. Others express ethical concerns about the potentially coercive nature of treatment-based courts, which require defendants to plead guilty in order to receive services.
In Judge Tynan's courtroom, however, it's hard to find much criticism. In fact, as Lonergan, the deputy district attorney, puts it, "It's rare that you see prosecutors and defense attorneys in such agreement."