Guest Column: Veterans courts heal scars we can’t see

By Austin Berg 
Illinois News Network

Veterans in Illinois and across the nation give everything. And they expect little in return. It’s what they deserve that matters.

One thing many veterans deserve is a second chance.

The struggles they face returning home are myriad. As a result, veterans experience a higher likelihood of homelessness, mental health issues and substance abuse than most civilian groups.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that U.S. veterans are overrepresented in prisons, too. Surveys by the Bureau of Justice Statistics show about 10 percent of inmates in state prisons report prior military service.

Thankfully, there’s a policy tool that can address this problem – and more – in Illinois. It’s called a veterans court. And it’s giving a deserved second chance to Illinoisans who need it.

Here’s how it works:

First, participation in veterans court is typically limited to veterans with nonviolent records who are struggling with drug abuse or mental health problems.

Some courts also allow veterans with violent records to participate on a case-by-case basis. After all, alcohol or other drugs are involved in more than 75 percent of violent crime in the United States.

If a veteran is arrested for an offense but agrees to participate in mental health or substance-abuse treatment, does not commit new crimes, and meets other requirements, his charges are dropped.

That’s veterans court in a nutshell.

Along with other “problem-solving” courts such as drug court and mental health court, it’s one small part of a nationwide movement to reject the one-size-fits-all model within the criminal justice system.

Retired St. Clair County Judge Annette Eckert played a large role in expanding veterans courts across Illinois. She chaired a task force to develop state law on the matter. There are now 15 veterans courts across Illinois with more in the works, according to the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts.

For Eckert, alternative sentencing methods such as veterans courts are a no-brainer.

“We can’t cookie-cut defendants anymore. We have to be smart about this,” Eckert said.

“When I talk about second chances, people get it. Because we’ve all been there. We’ve all made mistakes. If everybody looks around the Thanksgiving table there’s someone who’s been affected by drugs or mental health issues.”

Being smart on crime doesn’t just improve the lives of people who made mistakes. There are serious public safety benefits as well, not to mention cost savings.

One of the most crucial parts of problem-solving courts is that ex-offenders who complete these programs successfully do not leave with offenses on their criminal records.

Too often, those records are scarlet letters when ex-offenders are looking for jobs. And that stigma affects more than those who bear it.

While nearly half of ex-offenders in Illinois are back in prison within three years, Illinois ex-offenders who are employed a year after release can have a recidivism rate as low as 16 percent, according to research from the Safer Foundation.

But efforts to drop recidivism don’t just reduce crime. They save money, too.

When ex-offenders can forge new lives as productive citizens – when the criminal justice system helps solve problems rather than exacerbates them – costs to taxpayers plummet.

Each time an ex-offender ends up back behind bars, it costs Illinoisans an average of nearly $120,000, including costs borne by taxpayers and victims, according to a report by the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council.

Of course, it’s not just veterans who can benefit from criminal justice reforms in Illinois. Take House Bill 2373, for example. It expands eligibility for record sealing, allowing ex-offenders with previous nonviolent, non-sexual felony convictions to apply to have their records sealed from view for employers.

Illinoisans should support this effort for the same reason they support veterans courts: If someone can prove her potential for progress, she deserves a shot at a second chance.

This Memorial Day, we honor those who have fallen. Let’s not forget to extend a hand up to those who remain.

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