New York State

Despite expansion, inconsistent access to veteran treatment courts

New York legislation would allow referral of cases to problem-solving veteran treatment courts across jurisdictions.

Judge's gavel

Judge's gavel Shutterstock

Some veterans struggle with mental health and substance abuse problems, which can land them in the criminal justice system. In response, the first veteran treatment courts in the country were established in Buffalo a decade ago. These courts are geared toward veterans with mental health or substance abuse issues who have committed low-level crimes. The court connects them with mental health counseling and other community-based services that help with job training, housing and transportation. The courts have been shown to reduce recidivism, thereby also avoiding the long-term cost of incarceration.

By last year, nearly half of New York’s counties had a veterans court and, according to the governor’s office, more than 4,500 veterans have been helped across the state between 2008 and early 2017. However, one-third of veterans in New York still do not have access to such courts, and some advocates say that could be mitigated by allowing cases to be more easily transferred into jurisdictions with veterans courts. This is a challenge faced by other alternative courts, such as mental health courts and youth courts, especially in counties outside of New York City.

“You can get arrested in Westchester County, let’s say in Ossining,” state Sen. David Carlucci told City & State. “Let’s say it’s a domestic violence issue, you don’t have access to a domestic violence court because there’s not one set up in that town. Even if the town next door has a problem-solving court, you’re unable to go to that court because it’s not within that jurisdiction.”

Carlucci sponsored legislation last session to allow district attorneys to refer cases to problem-solving courts across jurisdictions. While the bill did pass the state Senate, it did not get through the Assembly.

However, the House of Representatives recently passed a bill to have the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hire at least 50 more outreach specialists to help veterans courts. It was co-sponsored by four New York representatives: Brian Higgins, Elise Stefanik, Kathleen Rice and the late Louise Slaughter.