Valley Voices

Expand Fresno’s veterans’ courts to all of California

Arthur Casares, a homeless Desert Storm Army veteran admires his new pair of jeans during the Central Valley Veterans Stand Down in 2009 at VFW Post 8900 in Fresno. Only half of California’s 58 counties offer veterans’ treatment courts, which help struggling veterans fully rejoin society. AB 1672 would study the effectiveness of veterans’ court and open the door to their expansion.
Arthur Casares, a homeless Desert Storm Army veteran admires his new pair of jeans during the Central Valley Veterans Stand Down in 2009 at VFW Post 8900 in Fresno. Only half of California’s 58 counties offer veterans’ treatment courts, which help struggling veterans fully rejoin society. AB 1672 would study the effectiveness of veterans’ court and open the door to their expansion. Fresno Bee file

“War is hell.”

Most Americans who have never experienced the trauma of combat understandably cannot appreciate the full context or gravity of this statement. But to those with family, neighbors or friends returning from the battlefield with post-traumatic stress or other combat-related disorders, it most certainly hits home.

California is home to nearly 1 million veterans, with nearly 46,000 hailing from Fresno County. Many of our brave service men and women do pretty well and are able to readjust to civilian life upon return, but sadly, a good many do not.

According to a 2000 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, 81 percent of all justice-involved veterans had a substance-abuse problem prior to incarceration, 35 percent were suffering from alcohol dependency, 23 percent were homeless at some point in the prior year, 25 percent were identified as mentally ill, and the most heartbreaking statistic of all from the U.S. Veterans Administration: 22 veterans commit suicide in the United States every day.

Sadly, these and other circumstances lead to many veterans getting into trouble with the law. To the average person, the reaction might be “commit the crime, do the time,” but the roots of these problems run much deeper, and the lock-’em-up approach doesn’t help these individuals get back on the road to recovery.

That’s where veterans’ treatment courts are having an impact and changing lives. Started by Judge Robert Russell in New York in 2008, the program and process is simple: Veterans who commit low-level offenses are afforded the opportunity go through the veterans’ court program, normally an 18-month program that involves counseling, rehabilitation, education and community service.

The collaborative court typically involves the judge, court and veterans officials, community groups and families, all aimed at helping a veteran find a path to recovery. If veterans complete the program, judges will most likely expunge their court records; if they don’t, these people are placed back on the regular court docket.

Veterans’ treatment courts are working, with an average 98 percent success rate nationwide, lowered recidivism rates, and cost savings for counties and taxpayers.

Fresno is the latest county with the heart and vision to implement such a court. We salute Superior Court Judge Hilary Chittick, court and county personnel, and the many other dedicated local stakeholders committed to ensuring this court’s success.

The bad news is that many, if not most, veterans still aren’t getting these vital resources they need. Only half of California’s 58 counties have veterans courts.

While Fresno, Tulare and Kern counties have terrific veterans’ treatment courts, there are no such services available to nearly 12,000 veterans in Merced County, 8,500 veterans in Madera County and 6,500 veterans in Tuolumne County. And the list goes on.

This is unacceptable. Veterans in every California county should be afforded this same opportunity for recovery and rehabilitation, a roof over their heads, a job and reunification with families.

That’s why we united this year to bring about AB 1672. It commissions a one-year study by the Judicial Council of California to explore the net impact of counties that offer veterans courts, the effect of veterans in counties that lack such courts, and potential efforts and resources to reach veterans in every corner of the Golden State.

So far, the Legislature agrees that this is a crucial priority and AB 1672 unanimously has passed the Assembly and two Senate committees. When lawmakers return from their summer break, we hope the Senate and Gov. Brown will follow suit and ensure this vital legislation becomes law.

Our men and women in uniform lay their lives on the line to make sure we have a brighter tomorrow. We owe it to them to give them that very same degree of hope when they come home.

Devon Mathis, R-Visalia, represents Assembly District 26, which encompasses all of Inyo County and portions of Tulare and Kern counties. He is the author of AB 1672. B. Wayne Hughes Jr. is a California philanthropist and founder of Serving California and SkyRose Ranch in San Luis Obispo County that treats veterans with PTSD and other disorders. Hughes is funding half of the study that would be authorized by AB 1672.

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