CA Veterans Tx Courts

Subject: Background Information from Newman’s senate hearing

Veterans Treatment Courts

Veterans and the Criminal Justice System

California law authorizes counties to establish collaborative justice courts, including drug and mental health courts. These collaborative or “problem-solving” justice courts address the cases of nonviolent offenders by combining judicial monitoring with intensive treatment services over approximately 18 months. These court-administered programs are funded through realignment moneys.

Military veterans comprise a significantly sized subset of the nonviolent offender population.[1] Caught up in the maelstrom of serious mental illness, addiction and co-occurring disorders, they run afoul of the law and find themselves seriously entangled in the criminal justice system.

Oftentimes, the root causes of many veterans’ underlying problems result directly from the military service they performed on behalf of our nation. Research has shown that traditional services do not always adequately meet the needs of veterans; indeed, veterans generally respond more positively to rehabilitative efforts that affirm their veteran status and provide veteran peer-based camaraderie and expectations.

In addition, many veterans are entitled to medical and related treatment through the United States Department of Veterans’ Administration’s (USDVA) and veterans treatment courts help connect them with these benefits.

During the last decade, this emerging recognition of the particular challenges and opportunities for dealing with nonviolent veteran offenders led to creation of the veterans treatment court (VTC), a hybrid drug and mental health court that uses the drug court model. The VTC offers veterans of the United States Armed Forces a comprehensive, treatment-based alternative to incarceration for non-violent criminal offenses.  Since 2008, more than 200 VTCs have opened across the nation.

California Enacts Veterans Treatment Courts

In 2006, California became the first state to establish a prison diversion program for veterans and military members when Governor Schwarzenegger signed AB 2586 (Parra) creating Penal Code 1170.9. Since then, PC 1170.9 has been expanded and refined by the Legislature. The resulting VTCs are judicially-supervised court docket intended to:

  • Reduce correctional costs,
  • Protect community safety, and
  • Improve public welfare.

According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, it costs an average of $71,000 per year to incarcerate someone in state prisons.[2]  Considering the high rate of recidivism in California and the inadequacy of funding for rehabilitative services, veterans’ treatment courts can and do serve a vital role in providing cost- and life-saving alternatives to incarceration. As of May 2017, 25 VTC locations are operating in 20 California counties.[3]

The VTC combines rigorous treatment and accountability for veterans facing incarceration due to charges stemming from substance abuse and/or mental health issues. They promote sobriety, recovery and stability through a coordinated response and the understanding that the bonds of military service and combat run deep.

Veterans treatment courts not only allow veterans to go through the process with other veterans, who are similarly situated and have common past experiences, but also link them with services uniquely designed for the distinct needs that arise from that military experience. The approach requires a coordinated response involving collaboration among the traditional county and nonprofit partners found in typical drug and mental health courts, the USDVA’s health care and benefits agencies, the California Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet), county veterans  service officers (CVSOs), and, in some programs, volunteer veteran mentors and veterans’ family support organizations.[4]

Existing Law (Penal Code Section 1190.9):

Provides that – in the case of any person convicted of a criminal offense, who would otherwise be sentenced to county jail or state prison, and who alleges that he or she committed the offense as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, or psychological problems stemming from service in a combat theater in the United States military –  the court shall, prior to sentencing, hold a hearing to determine whether the defendant was a member of the military forces of the United States who served in combat and shall assess whether the defendant suffers from PTSD, substance abuse, or psychological problems as a result of that service.  [PC §1170.9(a).]

States that if the court concludes that a defendant convicted of a criminal offense was a member of the military forces of the United States suffering from PTSD, substance abuse, or psychological problems stemming from service in a combat theater and if the defendant is otherwise eligible for probation and the court places the defendant on probation, the court may order the defendant into a local; state; federal; or private, non-profit treatment program for a period not to exceed that which the defendant would have served in state prison or county jail, provided the defendant agrees to participate in the program and the court determines that an appropriate treatment program exists. [PC §1170.9(b).]

Obligates counties to provide mental health treatment services to members of the military forces of the United States suffering from PTSD, substance abuse, or psychological problems stemming from service in a combat theater only to the extent that resources are available for that purpose.  If mental health treatment services are ordered by the court, the county mental health agency shall coordinate appropriate referral of the defendant to the county veterans service officer.  The county mental health agency shall not be responsible for providing services outside its traditional scope of services.  An order shall be made referring a defendant to a county mental health agency only if that agency has agreed to accept responsibility for the treatment of the defendant. [PC §1170.9(c).]

VTC Funding

During the recession, as with every area of state government, General Fund support for the Judicial Branch, as a whole, was reduced. County VTCs are discretionary. Like other California collaborative justice courts, VTCs are funded from existing trial court resources and do not receive a dedicated stream of funding from the State General Fund.

Existing court resources allow VTCs to be funded in a variety of ways. Some rely on in-kind services of the courts or justice system partners. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), supervises a grant program and works in partnership with Justice for Vets to provide technical assistance to veterans courts.  Because VTCs generally use the drug court model, they also can apply for federal drug court funding through BJA and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), when that funding is available.

The Judicial Council manages two funding streams that could be used for veterans courts:

  1. The Recidivism Reduction Fund (RRF) is a $15 million competitive grant program, from state general fund, that the courts can use to fund three different programs designed to reduce criminal recidivism: pretrial programs; the use of risk and needs assessment; and collaborative justice courts (which would include veterans courts). This is a one-time program and the Judicial Council was scheduled to discuss the award recommendations at its February 19, 2015 meeting.[5]
  2. The Substance Abuse Focus Grant is an ongoing grant program, funded annually from a line item from the Judicial Council portion of the State Budget Act. It is available to local courts for the purpose of implementing, enhancing or expanding drug courts or other collaborative justice courts. This program allocates approximately $1.1 million through a formula grant process. Individual court awards range in size, but generally do not exceed $50,000. Veterans courts can seek funding through this source as well.

How Do Veterans Treatment Courts Work?

Supervision time of veteran participants is usually in the range of 12 to 18 months, with a few shorter and a few longer than that. VTCs convene once or twice per month, with a few having weekly calendars.

Following is a list of considerations, when deciding if and how to establish a veterans treatment court:

  1. About 30% of Afghanistan (OEF) and Iraq (OIF) veterans have PTSD.
  2. PTSD accompanies most traumatic brain injuries (TBI).
  3. Veterans tend to avoid (a) admitting mental problems and (b) talking about combat or anything that reminds them of their combat experience.
  4. Co-occurrence of addiction is common.
  5. The U.S Department of Veterans Affairs and U.S. Department of Defense have developed effective therapy.
  6. Early intervention is the key to successful treatment.
  7. Family support is the key to rehabilitation.
  8. Awareness and knowledge of military culture is important for caregivers.
  9. Participation in a VTC is voluntary so program incentives are necessary.
  10. Collaborative team model.
  11. The VTC is a hybrid of the drug court and mental health court.
  12. The VTC provides intensive treatment in lieu of jail or prison.
  13. Involves direct judicial monitoring for 12-18 months.
  14. Requires an individualized treatment plan.
  15. Contains integrated alcohol and drug treatment, including abstinence monitoring via frequent testing.
  16. Provides a graduated system of both incentives and sanctions that guides participants’ compliance & VTC response.
  17. Peer mentors help ensure the cooperation of participants.
  18. Nationally, VTCs generate a lower two-year recidivism than other approaches:
  1. Misdemeanors (VTC 0-15% vs. 40-50%)
  2. Felonies (VTC 0-15% vs. 70%)
  1. Lowers the costs associated with incarceration, which reduces taxpayer burden.
  2. Shifts local program costs for mental health treatment to federal VA.
  3. Eligibility:
  4. Veteran status, preferably combat veteran. (Details vary by VTC.)
  5. Service-related mental health problem.
  6. Defendant: Crime arose from mental health problem.
  1. Offense is eligible for probation (post plea bargain) Guilty finding, placed on probation
  2. Therapy in lieu of incarceration.
  3. Therapy by VA, local government, or nonprofit.
  4. Residential treatment earns sentence credit.
  5. Upon completion of supervision:
  1. Judge may reduce most felonies to misdemeanors.
  2. Rights can be restored and record expunged.
  3. On employment applications, veteran may answer “No” to questions re: arrest and conviction (Exception: Law enforcement positions.).
  4. However, if new criminal conduct occurs, the VTC offense can be considered a prior conviction. Basically, anything high risk, such as:
    1. High-speed driving.
    2. Robberies.
  • DUI.
  1. Drug possession.
  2. Bar fights/assaults.
  3. Possession/brandishing of firearms.
  • Domestic Violence.
  1. The VTC program is based on CA Penal Code 1170.9, but makes use of all existing law.
  2. According to the California Courts web site, the following counties operate VTCs:
  1. Alameda, El Dorado, Kern, Kings, Los Angeles, Monterey, Orange, Placer, Riverside, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Francisco, San Joaquin, San Luis Obispo, San Mateo, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Solano, Tulare, Ventura
  2. Numerous other jurisdictions are considering or engaged in early planning.
  1. The VTC multidisciplinary team:
  1. May contain all of the following elements:
    1. Judge.
    2. Public Defender.
  • District Attorney.
  1. Team coordinator.
  2. Probation officer.
  3. Law enforcement (jail inmate services).
  • Veterans justice outreach specialist of federal VA.
  • County mental health department.
  1. Peer mentoring organization.
  2. Court analyst/evaluator.
  1. Must possess the following attributes:
    1. Have all necessary knowledge relating to each specific veteran participant.
    2. All team members must know one other well and be able to work quickly.
  • Assembles in full only during court and pre-court staffing.
  1. Develops expertise in dealing with military-specific mental health problems.
  1. Is supplemented and supported by:
    1. Other local government veteran-related resources:
    2. Volunteer labor, for example —
      • Peer mentors (now usually volunteer).
      • Team coordinator.
      • Court analyst.
      • Case management.
  • Shared labor
    • Use personnel from existing courts.
    • Case management by housing/therapy providers.
  1. Large veterans service organizations.
    • For funds, transportation, etc.


VTC Legislation


SB 339 (Roth, pending, 2017) requires the Judicial Council of California to report to the Legislature on a study of veterans and VTCs that includes a statewide assessment of VTCs currently in operation, and a survey of counties that do not operate VTCs to help identify barriers to implementation and the need for VTCs in those counties. Also establishes a fund within the State Treasury to accept private donations to pay for the study and survey. Currently pending in Senate Appropriations Committee.


AB 1672 (Mathis, failed passage, 2016) Requires the Judicial Council of California to report to the Legislature on a study of veterans and VTCs that includes a statewide assessment of VTCs currently in operation, and a survey of counties that do not operate VTCs to help identify barriers to implementation and the need for VTCs in those counties. Also establishes a fund within the State Treasury to accept private donations to pay for the study and survey. Stalled in Assembly Appropriations Committee.


AB 2098 (Levine, Chapter 163, Statutes of 2014) requires the court to consider a defendant’s status as a veteran suffering from PTSD or other forms of trauma when making specified sentencing determinations.

ACR 36 (Atkins, Resolution Chapter 39, Statutes of 2013) encourages all superior courts to consider establishing VTCs and/or veterans treatment review calendars to assist troubled veterans who have service-related mental health issues.


AB 201 (Butler, vetoed, 2012) would have authorized superior courts to develop and implement VTCs.  This bill would have established standards and procedures for veterans’ courts and would have specified that county participation in the veterans’ courts program is voluntary.


AB 1925 (Salas, vetoed, 2010) would have authorized superior courts to develop and implement VTCs for eligible veterans of the U.S. military. The Governor’s veto message stated “authorizing legislation is not required for the superior courts to establish specialized courts with dedicated calendars. I would urge the Judicial Council to examine the need for veterans’ courts, however, and establish appropriate guidelines for the superior courts to follow.”


AB 674 (Salas, Chapter 347, Statutes of 2010) allows a court to order a defendant who suffers from sexual trauma, traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, or mental health problems as a result of military service, into a treatment program or VTC for a period not to exceed that which the defendant would have served in state prison or jail.



[1] A major contributing factor is that approximately 30 percent of veterans returning from Operation Enduring Freedom and Operations Iraqi Freedom are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). California Veterans Legal Task Force, “Veterans Treatment Courts: The Right Approach for California,” 2015.


[3] California Research Bureau, California State Library, Research Report, May 5, 2017.

[4] Justice for Vets, “Veterans Fought for our Freedom; Shouldn’t We Fight for Theirs?” 2013, (last accessed 2/25/2015).

[5] As part of the Budget Act of 2014, the Legislature directed the Judicial Council of California to develop and administer a competitive grant program for trial courts that incorporate practices known to reduce adult offender recidivism. Criminal Justice Services, staff to the Judicial Council, recommends approving the Recidivism Reduction Fund (RRF) Court Grant Program funding allocation and distribution as well as recommendations related to further RRF funding opportunities for the courts and for grant administration activities. [Source: “Staff Report to the Judicial Council for Business Meeting on February 19, 2015.”]