The recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have seen a dramatic rise in the number of mental health and substance abuse issues involving military veterans returning from serving in those wars. Some of these soldiers are returning home with mental health issues and are using drugs to deal with the mental health issues which such wars have caused. Those issues have spilled into the criminal justice system when these military veterans are getting arrested for crimes caused by substance abuse and mental health issues arising out of their military service. In an effort to address the specific needs of returning veterans, the Illinois Legislature passed legislation in 2009 establishing Veterans Courts in Illinois. The 2009 legislation did not require that counties establish such courts. Nevertheless, Cook County and Lake County did establish such courts. Veterans Courts are specific courts which are designed to steer military veterans out of the criminal punishment aspect of the court system and towards the treatment aspect of the court system. Specific courts have been established at 26th and California, Skokie, Rolling Meadows, Maywood, Bridgeview and Markham. The Veterans Courts in Cook County have been very successful and have been used as a model by court systems throughout the United States to help them establish their own Veterans Courts. The Illinois Legislature recently passed legislation requiring that each county in Illinois establish such a court by January 1, 2018. In anticipation of this new law taking effect, counties throughout Illinois are beginning to make plans to establish these courts. Kane County officials are aware of the new law and are beginning to make plans to start the process of establishing these courts.
In order for a veteran to be eligible for Veterans Court in Cook County, enrollment has to be agreed to by the Court, Prosecutor and the Defendant. The crime that the veteran is charged with cannot be a crime of violence. The veteran will not be eligible unless they have demonstrated a willingness to undergo treatment in the program. They will also be ineligible if they have been convicted of a crime of violence within the past 10 years or if they have been discharged from a similar program within the past 3 years.
Lake County’s Veterans Court is similar with minor changes to the eligibility requirements. To be eligible for Veterans Court in Lake County the veteran must have been honorably discharged from the military, must have a service related disability or currently be in the military, must be charged with a felony or misdemeanor in which probation or supervision is available, and must be willing to participate in the program before and after they enter the program. They prefer that the veteran be eligible for VA benefits but is not a requirement. For any crime involving a crime against an individual, the victim must agree to allowing the veteran to enter such a program.
Once in the program, treatment options are crafted for each specific case. The program may last between 18 to 24 months. Depending on the issues involving each defendant, a course of alcohol or drug treatment is prescribed, mental health treatment, counseling, job training and even curfews may be involved. Regular court dates are scheduled and regular drug tests are administered. Positive drug tests can include jail time or other forms of punishment designed to force compliance. Once a veteran completes Veterans Court, or graduates, their criminal case is dismissed and they may eventually be able to expunge the case and the arrest.
Cook County and Lake County officials report great success with their programs. A large percentage of graduates of such courts do not get arrested again and the savings from not having to incarcerate these defendants runs into the millions of dollars.
We should be hearing more about these courts as we get closer to January 1, 2018, which is when each county will be required to establish such courts.
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