State expands veterans’ programs

The state of Connecticut is implementing changes to how veterans are treated in the criminal justice system this month.

The Act Concerning Pretrial Diversionary Programs, a bill that expands veterans’ access to programs supporting mental health services and alternatives to incarceration, came into effect at the start of this month after it was passed by the state legislature in May. The legislation was developed by the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center, an organization that provides legal assistance to veterans, and the Yale Law School’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic.

“The concern was that manifestations of [major depressive orders] would result in criminal behavior or criminal arrest of veterans, and we wanted to be sure that as a society, we are helping people get help rather than punishing them for their service,” said Margaret Middleton, the executive director of the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center and a visiting lecturer at the Yale Law School.

According to the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center as of February 2012, 21 percent of Connecticut veterans met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder and an additional 22 percent met partial criteria for the disorder, but fewer than half these veterans ultimately seek treatment. The center also said that Connecticut is home to more than 240,000 veterans and anticipates that the number will continue to grow in coming years.

“We wanted to make every court in Connecticut a veterans’ court by giving defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges additional tools for helping veterans by helping them reintegrate into society,” Middleton said.

Four Law School students in the school’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic — Sofia Nelson LAW ’13, Eric Parrie LAW ’13, Jon Fougner LAW ’14 and Kathryn Cahoy LAW ’12 — represented the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center, acting as liaisons among different stakeholders and helping to draft the bill that went before the legislature.

Nelson explained that existing jail diversion programs are not “adequate” to meet the needs of veterans, adding that the bill modifies veterans’ access to two existing programs, Accelerated Rehabilitation and Supervised Diversion.

Veterans can now use the Accelerated Rehabilitation program — which enables veterans to participate in treatment programs for low-level, non-violent offenses instead of going to jail if a court decides it is appropriate — twice instead of just once. For soldiers who serve multiple tours, one chance to use Accelerated Rehabilitation is not enough, Nelson said. She cited the hypothetical example of a soldier who was convicted of alcohol possession, participated in Accelerated Rehabilitation, served in Iraq or Afghanistan and then was caught for another minor crime, such as marijuana possession.

“Let’s say someone is coping with their experiences abroad by smoking marijuana and they get caught,” Nelson said. “They’ve used their chance [at Accelerated Rehabilitation], but their contact with the criminal justice system is a direct result of their service, and I think that’s a unique circumstance that should be addressed.”

Additionally, veterans can now use a program called Supervised Diversion, which gives veterans access to mental health treatment, without having to declare themselves as officially suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Linda Schwartz, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Veterans’ Affairs, said the group proposed a number of plans that were rejected, such as a veterans’ court and a special docket for veterans, before they successfully proposed increased access to existing programs and resources.

Middleton said that another benefit of the clinic and center’s work on the bill was to stimulate discussion among key players involved in services for veterans that previously had not been in frequent contact.

“We were working as a liaison between a lot of the stakeholders who often don’t talk to each other or just work in different areas, such as local criminal defense attorneys, state veterans’ affairs departments and service workers who provide medical care,” Parrie said. “The biggest obstacle we overcame was helping folks who care about the same problem communicate with each other and realize where the gaps and spaces were with existing services.”

The group of Law School students also traveled to Hartford regularly to talk with legislators, Nelson said. According to her, one of the most important contributions of the students was to educate stakeholders about the issue, and their cooperation and acceptance of the bill followed naturally.

She added that this bill also makes sense for the state financially and that it is more cost-efficient for the state to solve the root causes of veterans’ crimes rather than incur the high costs of incarcerating them.

The law came into effect on Oct. 1.

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