Senate Holds Hearing on Flake Veterans Treatment Court Improvement Act

WASHINGTON– During today’s Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing, U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) delivered testimony in support of the Veterans Treatment Court Improvement Act; his bill to expand access to the effective and tailored treatments provided by Veterans Treatment Courts to struggling veterans. Leaders from the American Legion, American Veterans (AMVETS),Disabled American Veterans (DAV), and Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) – four of the 20 total veterans and law enforcement advocacy groups backing the bill – also testified at the hearing.

The VA created the Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO) program in 2009 to provide veterans with timely access to available Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) services and engage justice-involved veterans in specialty treatment courts. The veterans treatment court model removes veterans from the regular criminal justice process and helps to address symptoms that are unique to veterans, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse. In a veterans treatment court, the presiding judge works alongside the veteran and the VJO specialist to establish a structured rehabilitation program that is tailored to the specific needs of that veteran.

The Veterans Treatment Court Improvement Act would require the VA to hire 50 additional VJO specialists. Flake drafted the bill with Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, and in April introduced it with U.S. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) as cosponsors. For more information on the bill, click here.

Part of Flake’s testimony included recollections from a recent visit to a Veterans Treatment Court in Mesa:

In April, I had the opportunity to observe the veterans docket and meet with some of these dedicated specialists while visiting the Mesa Municipal Court in Arizona. Let me tell you, there is just no substitute for seeing this process firsthand. Even though it’s a courtroom setting, there is a comradery and collaboration that you just don’t see in traditional courtroom proceedings.

‘That comes from having a judge and hardworking staff who have served in the military themselves. They understand that coming home isn’t always easy. Though the program has experienced remarkable success, the demand for outreach specialists is outpacing the program’s ability to serve all eligible veterans. This means that future veterans treatment courts cannot be established, existing courts will go understaffed, and veterans will go unserved.

‘To ensure that our veterans receive swift and appropriate access to justice, I introduced the Veterans Treatment Court Improvement Act. This legislation will provide 50 additional outreach specialists for veterans treatment courts nationwide. By increasing the number of dedicated specialists at these facilities, we will decrease the number of veterans who will end up getting lost in the criminal justice system.’

To view video of Flake’s complete testimony and testimony in support of the bill from the American Legion, AMVETS, and DAV, click here.
A transcript of Flake’s prepared testimony can be viewed below:

Support (Click links to view each group’s statement and/or testimony supporting the Veterans Treatment Court Improvement Act):

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Thank you Chairman Isakson and Ranking Member Tester for allowing me to speak today in support of the Veterans Treatment Court Improvement Act. I am pleased to have joined with the Ranking Member to introduce this sensible piece of legislation.

I would also like to take the opportunity now to thank the Veterans Service Organizations that support the bill, including The American Legion, AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans, and Paralyzed Veterans of America, each of which have a member testifying here today.

Mr. Chairman, with your consent I will submit for the record letters from these four organizations, as well as several others, in support of the bill.

As you likely know, the state of Arizona is home to more than half a million veterans. These brave men and women have served in every conflict from World War II to present day operations in the Middle East. I am proud to call them Arizonans.

But, oftentimes, when these soldiers return home from conflicts abroad, the transition back to civilian life proves to be its own battle. With the support of family and friends, and the tireless work of Veterans Service Organizations, most are able to surmount these challenges. For those who lack a support system, these issues could lead to run-ins with the law.

While there is no justification for criminal behavior, it is important to recognize when certain actions may be symptomatic of the harrowing experiences a veteran has endured during years of service.

By not providing treatment that actually addresses the underlying service-connected issues, our criminal justice system can create a vicious cycle. To address the absence of veteran-specific treatment in our criminal justice system, the Department of Veterans Affairs created the Veterans Justice Outreach program in 2009. The program established specialty courts that remove veterans from the regular criminal justice process and provide tailored treatments for underlying issues like post-traumatic stress and substance abuse. Veterans treatment courts have a proven track record of preventing initial incarceration and reducing recidivism.

The lifeblood of the program are the Veterans Justice Outreach specialists who link veterans to available court services. These outreach specialists identify veterans in jails and local courts, assess their health status, and help to develop a rehabilitation treatment program specific to each veteran’s needs.

In April, I had the opportunity to observe the veterans docket and meet with some of these dedicated specialists while visiting the Mesa Municipal Court in Arizona. Let me tell you, there is just no substitute for seeing this process firsthand. Even though it’s a courtroom setting, there is a comradery and collaboration that you just don’t see in traditional courtroom proceedings.

That comes from having a judge and hardworking staff who have served in the military themselves. They understand that coming home isn’t always easy. Though the program has experienced remarkable success, the demand for outreach specialists is outpacing the program’s ability to serve all eligible veterans. This means that future veterans treatment courts cannot be established, existing courts will go understaffed, and veterans will go unserved.

To ensure that our veterans receive swift and appropriate access to justice, I introduced the Veterans Treatment Court Improvement Act. This legislation will provide 50 additional outreach specialists for veterans treatment courts nationwide. By increasing the number of dedicated specialists at these facilities, we will decrease the number of veterans who will end up getting lost in the criminal justice system.

I am committed to working with the Committee on a commonsense legislative fix that would connect more veterans with the treatments they have already earned with their service.

Thank you.

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