18 December 2023- Pennsylvania ranks fifth in total population in the United States but fourth in total veterans. Over 769,423 vets count PA as home. While this is certainly an asset that the Commonwealth can be proud of, Vets, and specifically combat vets, have a higher predisposition to PTSD, anxiety, and issues that could make traditional court processes difficult.
Since 2009, PA’s Unified Judicial System has rolled out a series of Veterans Treatment Courts assisting vets who are charged with crimes, are struggling with substance abuse disorder, mental illness, or other co-occurring disorders. These courts can be saviors for those that appear before them, but not nearly enough of them exist. The courts are especially centered in areas of higher population density, like Eastern and Western PA. This hurts and hampers recovery for both rural and even some urban vets.
The following is an op-ed penned by Senator Doug Mastriano of Franklin and Adams County. Mastriano, himself a combat veteran of the US Army, serves an area that doesn’t have a single Veterans Treatment Court despite the higher density of veterans calling rural America home. His letter can be read in full.
Pennsylvania military veterans in nearly two out of every three Pennsylvania counties lack access to a key resource in our criminal justice system. I want to change that.
Our military veterans served our country and our commonwealth in their times of need. These brave men and women took time away from their families and loved ones, sometimes traveled halfway across the globe and made tremendous sacrifices to defend our nation.
Some of our veterans returned home with physical injuries or scars. Many returned with emotional or psychological wounds that may take years or even decades to heal.
Many veterans saw and experienced traumatic events. Their service to our nation can leave them more vulnerable to addiction and mental illness. They bear these burdens because they defended us.
Now it is our turn to defend them.
Many veterans may not realize they have a trauma-induced problem until it is too late.
The formerly quiet and patient veteran flies off the handle and loses his temper at his wife, leading her to call law enforcement when she’s not sure where else to turn.
The previously solid and stoic veteran begins casually referencing suicide, leading her family to call law enforcement when they fear for her safety.
Our veterans’ trauma-induced issues may first surface through an interaction with law enforcement.
The good news is the problem finally may begin to be addressed. The bad news is that our criminal justice system is not always the best place to handle these issues, especially for veterans.
That is why I worked in the past to enact a law enabling Pennsylvania counties to establish Veterans Courts. These problem-solving courts are intended to help our veterans rather than punishing them for the addiction or mental illness that resulted from their service.
The veterans come before judges on a regular basis, receive mentorship from fellow veterans, are supervised by specialized probation officers, and receive treatment and support from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
That last point is key. Veterans can access a variety of programs and services through the benefits they earned by serving our country. Those resources often are a better option than punishment through the criminal justice system. Rehabilitation is preferable to incarceration.
We’ve seen progress in a relatively short time period. Since my bill enabling counties to establish Veterans Courts was enacted in 2020, 25 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties have established one. Veterans in those counties have access to this life-saving resource.
That also means veterans in 42 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties – or nearly two out of every three counties – currently lack access to this transformational resource. Veterans in those counties who need help may find themselves at the mercy of the traditional criminal justice system.
Pennsylvania can and must do better for our veterans.
A veteran’s ability to access addiction and mental illness resources should not depend on the county in which he or she lives. Veterans who end up in our criminal justice system should have access to these resources regardless of which Pennsylvania county they call home.
We know Veterans Courts work. In 2022, 167 veterans graduated from the program, representing an 81% successful graduation rate. They are a “win-win-win” for the veteran, the justice system and the taxpayers.
We need to support our veterans during and after their time of service. Veterans Courts are one more way we can back the men and women who defended our nation, its values and everything we hold dear.