Veterans and former servicemembers often face challenges returning from service and making the transition to civilian life. When those challenges result in criminal charges — for drugs, alcohol, or other conduct — it can take more than a jail sentence or probation to turn things around. Colorado veterans treatment courts give those who served our nation a way to get help becoming part of society once more.
This blog post will discuss the Colorado Veterans treatment courts available to former servicemembers facing mental health and substance abuse problems connected to their civilian criminal charges. It will discuss who is eligible, what you will have to do if your case is referred to that court, and what success in and violations of the program mean to veterans.
Serving Your Country Sometimes Comes With Challenges at Home
Most veterans learn valuable life skills from their time in the U.S. military and return to their friends and family better for their time in the service. But nearly half of all veterans leave active duty with some form of mental health condition related to their service. One in 6 become addicted to drugs or alcohol and 20% face Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
These service-related disorders can make assimilating to civilian life difficult. Many veterans face substance abuse, relationship challenges, and homelessness because of their conditions. 700,000 vets are in jails or prisons across the country, many for crimes directly related to their mental health challenges and service-related trauma.
Colorado Creates Veterans Treatment Courts to Serve Servicemembers
To address this, the Colorado legislature has created a Veterans Treatment Court that replaces strict punishments with compassionate supervision. They offer an alternative to jail time for qualifying veterans, providing them with treatment, accountability, and structure to help them learn coping strategies and adjust to civilian life. The probation officers and court staff assigned to Veterans in the program offer assistance in signing up for VA health and disability benefits, and enrolling in classes to help veterans learn a trade and get a new career.
The first veterans court program opened in 2009 in Colorado Springs (District 4). Since then, additional programs have launched in:
- Denver in 2011
- Centennial (serving Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties) in 2013
- Golden (serving Jefferson and Gilpin Counties) in 2014
- Brighton (in Adams County) in 2014
- Pueblo in 2015
These programs provide veterans across the state an early-stage option to criminal convictions, pairing them with skilled treating professionals, supervisory staff, and peer veteran mentors to help them break the cycle of mental health, crime, and convictions.
Who is Eligible?
The Colorado Veterans Treatment Courts (VTC) are open to defendants facing criminal charges who:
- Are a current or former member of the U.S. Armed Forces (including the National Guard)
- Have a substance-abuse addiction or a Trauma Spectrum Disorder (like PTSD)
Referral happens early, typically before any plea is entered and usually within 50 days of arrest. If you or your criminal defense attorney request a referral to the VTC, the prosecutor assigned to the case will apply an objective test to see if you qualify. It won’t be based on how the prosecutor feels about you or your case. However, some types of charges will exclude you from consideration:
- Sex crimes
- Felonies that involve a child’s injury
- Firearm offenses where someone was injured
- Cases where someone died or sustained serious bodily harm
- Domestic violence charges involving stalking or strangulation
Your past criminal history can also interfere with your eligibility. You will not be allowed to go to VTC if you have ever been convicted of a crime:
- Using a firearm (or threatening to) in the commission of a crime
- Resulting in someone’s death or serious bodily harm
What to Expect if You Qualify for Veterans Treatment Program
The Colorado veterans treatment courts help addicted and mentally ill veterans stay out of jail, but that doesn’t mean that completing the program will be easy. Each defendant who qualifies for the VTC will be required to complete at least 12 months of treatment and supervision and achieve complete sobriety — including all non-prescription drugs, alcohol, and marijuana. While each case includes an individualized treatment plan, the VTC generally includes four phases:
- Stabilization (60 days or more)
- Engagement (90 days or more)
- Action (90 days or more)
- Maintenance (120 days or more)
During those phases, you should expect to:
- Complete assessments about your practical needs, drug use, and mental health
- Meet regularly with case managers, probation officers, and treating professionals (starting as high as 6 – 10 hours per week)
- Participate in individual therapy and group counseling sessions (totalling at least 200 hours in 9-12 months)
- Receive appropriate medications to treat your conditions
- Complete random drug and alcohol testing
- Attend regular review hearings with the judge or judicial officer (at least once a month)
- Obtain employment or enroll in school or pro-social activities (such as volunteer groups)
Depending on your circumstances and your progress, your treatment plan can be adjusted as you go, giving you the ongoing support you will need to move past your addiction and mental health challenges, and on to sobriety.
What Happens When You Relapse?
For many considering veterans treatment court, the biggest question going in is what will happen if they relapse or violate the rules of the program. The VTC often addresses mental health challenges and substance abuse issues that are by their nature hard to overcome. That means that many participants will struggle and fall short of the court’s expectations.
The good news is that “dropping dirty” or missing a meeting isn’t automatically going to send you back to jail. In fact, when you are admitted to the VTC, the prosecutor has to agree that positive drug tests and admissions of drug use will not be used as grounds for new drug use charges. Relapse may set back your progress and extend your supervision, but it isn’t going to create new criminal consequences.
Similarly, the VTC judges try not to use jail time as a punishment for violating their rules. The system is set up with a variety of incentives and sanctions (punishments) that fit the severity of the situation, including:
- Added probation appointments
- More court hearings
- Community service
- Reverting to an earlier phase of the VTC
- Jail time
Judges in the system use jail time as a last resort. Even then, it is usually for very short periods — often less than 6 days. If you are eventually disqualified from the program, your judge will sentence you based on the original charges as though you had never gone to the VTC.
What Happens if You Graduate the Veterans Treatment Court?
The up-side to Veterans Treatment Court is that most people enrolled do graduate with at least 90 days of sobriety and new opportunities for work, education, and livelihood. Depending on the specific charges and the agreement between you, your criminal defense attorney, and the prosecutor, graduation from the VTC could mean you are never convicted of the offense at all.
Colorado veterans treatment courts have already helped thousands of former servicemembers break the cycle of addiction and mental health challenges. By providing service, support, and mentorship, these court programs give veterans the help they need to move from servicemember to civilian and address the challenges they face because of their tours of duty.
At Aviso Law, LLC, our criminal defense attorney Ryan Coward is a veteran himself. We know how to work with the Colorado Veterans Treatment Courts and servicemembers to get you the help you need. We are here to serve you and will see you through the civilian criminal court process. Contact us today to schedule a consultation.