Five years ago, Erik Castro came back from Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder and an alcohol problem, though he wouldn’t admit to either.
“I don’t want to ask for help,” he says. "I wanted to do what I know how to do. Violence. Drinking. In the Marine Corps, it was just drinking a lot.”
It’s a combination — PTSD or other mental illness and substance abuse problems — that has landed a disproportionate number of veterans in the criminal justice system. In response, more than 200 jurisdictions have opened veterans courts. Modeled on drug courts, they offer defendants an alternative to jail or prison time, and proponents say, save counties and states money in the process.
Castro ended up in the veterans court in Orange County, California, after he got drunk and beat up a worker in a Subway restaurant. He says he doesn’t remember much of what happened, but he woke up the next morning in jail facing a bunch of felony charges.
The veterans court wasn’t his first choice, he says, but it seemed better than prison. And when he started the program, he was pleasantly surprised to find that it felt familiar.
“It was like being in the Marine Corps again,” he says. “They’re watching you ... they’re on you.”
The program is modeled on drug courts, so the emphasis is on treatment and recovery rather than punishment. In this case, the court connects clients to existing services, mostly through the Department of Veterans Affairs, and then forces the vets to make use of them or go back to jail. It’s intense: there’s substance abuse treatment, group therapy and individual therapy, plus regular check-ins with the judge and probation officer at court.
“They make you get those demons out,” Castro says. “They make you work, work, work.”
But it’s also supportive.
“What makes this unique,” says Joe Perez, the presiding judge, “is we’re all getting together, trying to figure out what’s the best way to keep this person from coming back.”
In Orange County, one of the ways they try to keep people from coming back is to make court feel like the military. The judge makes references to the military, sometimes addressing clients by their rank.
Every participant is assigned a mentor — themselves all combat veterans — to help them figure out how to cope. At the beginning of each court session, the mentors introduce themselves by name and branch of service. The courtroom responds with a cheer.
Perez says keeping people like Castro out of prison has all kinds of benefits, but “the bottom line: it’s saving lives and money.”
The court estimates the program has saved the county more than $2 million in jail and prison costs since it started five years ago. But it’s still small. There are just under 40 people in it today; about 100 others have either graduated or been asked to leave.
Douglas Marlow, who is an expert on these kinds of alternative courts, says it’s too early to say how well veterans courts work. “But comparing it to what the success rates are in the justice system in general,” he says, “we have good reason to believe we will have substantial impacts above and beyond what’s happening currently.”
In other words, veterans fare so poorly in the regular criminal justice system, these are almost guaranteed to have better outcomes.
Roth's reporting on mental illness and the criminal justice system was supported by a Soros Justice Fellowship.