One judge's act shows power of 'veterans' courts'

Helping veterans reclaim their lives
Helping veterans reclaim their lives

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Story highlights

  • A North Carolina judge spent a night in jail with his fellow veteran in a dramatic sign of the power of courts that focus on rehabilitation, says Jessica Sloan
  • Sloan: Veterans treatment courts recognize that traditional, punitive sentencing doesn't address root problems

Jessica Jackson Sloan is a human rights attorney, co-founder of #cut50, an organization which aims to reduce the number of people behind bars, and Vice Mayor of Mill Valley, California. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)By now, you've probably seen or heard the viral story about the judge in North Carolina who spent a night in jail with his fellow veteran.

Last month, that same court -- which handles criminal cases involving veterans -- held its first graduation. This "veterans' court" offers people returning from military service who have found themselves in trouble a more humane court experience focused on rehabilitation, and it has captured the imagination of the country.
    It's a welcome reprieve from the onslaught of examples we see every day of our broken criminal justice system, a bright spot in the midst of great darkness showing us that there is another way to treat people who make mistakes.
    Jessica Jackson Sloan
    A judge spending the night in jail with a veteran so he wouldn't be alone? This level of compassion for a fellow human being in need is so extraordinary in our justice system that it may be viewed as an anomaly. But it doesn't have to be.
    The court made famous by Judge Lou Olivera is not a traditional court, it's a veterans treatment court. And the bond between this judge and the men and women his court serves can be seen in action every single day in each of the more than 264 veterans treatment courts, and nearly 2,966 treatment courts, across the country.
    While some of our service men and women return home strengthened by their time in the military, veterans involved in the justice system are often struggling with underlying issues stemming from their service -- PTSD, military sexual trauma, brain injuries and substance dependence, to name just a few.
    Veterans treatment courts recognize that traditional, punitive sentencing doesn't address these root problems. Instead, in these courts, judges work with a team of professionals to ensure veterans are clinically assessed, connected with the evidence-based treatment and services they've earned through the VA, and paired with a volunteer veteran mentor who can guide them through the rigorous demands of the program.
    All of this support is focused on a single goal of putting each veteran on the road to recovery: getting sober, participating in treatment and counseling, finding employment or going back to school and repairing relationships with their family and community.
    This approach works, and not just for veterans. Veterans treatment courts are modeled after drug courts, the single most successful alternative to incarceration in our nation's history for leading people struggling with serious addiction out of the justice system and into healthy lives of long-term recovery.
    Treatment courts are principled about showing compassion, dignity and respect for the absolute value of every person. They're transforming our system from the inside out by helping to prevent people from carrying felony and misdemeanor criminal records; reducing drug use and recidivism; and improving education, employment, housing, and family stability. And they're changing how Americans think about what it means to serve justice.
    The fact is that these programs -- drug court, veterans' court, and youth court -- are working. Using the court system to focus on rehabilitation instead of just retribution results in people doing better things with their lives. It allows us to avoid the extreme brain drain that far too many neighborhoods are suffering through -- with countless people's talents for work and family wasted behind bars.
    At #cut50, an organization I co-founded to cut the prison population while making our communities safer, we find these results inspiring. Dealing with the root of the problem as opposed to simply punishing behavior has drastically reduces the risk of recidivism. These means fewer people will commit crimes once they have been through the treatment court.
    There are approximately 2.2 million Americans behind bars. Nearly 200,000 were veterans in 2011-2012, according to a study released late last year by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, and many would benefit from a treatment court, but do not have access to one. We must expand these innovative, life-saving programs so they're in reach of everyone in need. The fact is that hurt people hurt people -- and we can't break that cycle without allowing people to heal.
    It says something that this story about a small-town judge struck such a chord -- not just in the United States, but around the world. We're desperate for a system that values compassion above punishment, and promotes health, not handcuffs.
    The time has come to expand treatment courts, and to make retribution a last resort for use only if rehabilitation fails.