Dulé Hill: Veterans treatment courts save lives and communities

Recently, my fellow “West Wing” cast member Melissa Fitzgerald took me to court. Now, I couldn’t help but think going to court is usually a negative thing, but this was different. Melissa and I were attending a veterans treatment court graduation in the Philadelphia courtroom of Judge Patrick Dugan.

Melissa left Hollywood four years ago to work to expand and support veterans treatment courts across the country. A courtroom may seem like an odd place to honor our veterans, but as I would see, these are no ordinary courts. Veterans treatment courts are unique programs that intervene on behalf of veterans struggling with substance use and mental health disorders who get caught up in the justice system.

During my visit, I watched some of America’s greatest take bold steps to reclaim their futures. One by one, as they came forward to receive their certificates, they were thanked for their service and congratulated. It was clear to me that this was no “get out of jail free” card. For many months, these men and women worked hard. They reported to the court, held down jobs, completed education credits, performed community service, participated in mental health and/or substance use disorder treatment programs, and made amends to their loved ones.

Most importantly, many of them were also having their criminal charges dismissed. Watching the proceedings that day, I couldn’t help but think that our nation is so much better off with these veterans in our communities instead of our jails.

Veterans like Tim, whom I met that day in Philadelphia. As a Marine Corps sergeant, Tim spent much of 2003 in the gunner’s turret of a Humvee during the invasion of Iraq. Intense combat was a part of daily life. Then, one day, his service was up and he found himself suddenly back home in Philly. The transition was jarring. That first night he got in a bar fight and was arrested. Over the next ten years, he racked up seven arrests and struggled with addiction and post-traumatic stress. His life fell apart.

Veterans treatment court helped put it back together.

In 2013, after another arrest, Tim was given the chance to participate in the Philadelphia veterans treatment court. Instead of sitting behind bars, he was connected to intense treatment. In a courtroom surrounded by other veterans, including Judge Dugan, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Tim started to come to terms with his experience.

After graduating veterans treatment court a few years ago, he reunited with his wife and children. He is committed to giving back. He’s now a member of the veterans treatment court team, coordinating volunteer veteran mentors to support veterans who share the same struggles he did.

When I heard Tim’s story, I had trouble reconciling it with the happy, respected person I saw in court that day. I couldn’t believe how close we’d come to losing him to the system, and how much better off we are that he got a second chance.

Tragically, somewhere between 8-10% of those incarcerated in US jails and prisons are veterans. While veterans are incarcerated at significantly lower rates than nonveterans, those that are incarcerated have higher rates of mental health issues than nonveterans. But while it costs taxpayers around $30,000 a year to incarcerate one person, treating them actually saves money. Treatment courts have been found to save up to $13,000 for every individual they serve.

We owe veterans every opportunity to heal and to lead productive lives.

For too long, this country has equated justice with punishment. By upholding the enduring, absolute value of every human, treatment courts are helping to change our national perspective on what it means to serve justice. There are more than 350 of these veteran-specific treatment courts across the United States, but that number falls far short of reaching every veteran in need.

As we mark the 10th anniversary of these life-saving programs, and we commit to reducing the pain and suffering caused by the opioid crisis, we must double down on programs proven to work. Programs like veterans treatment courts.

That’s why my fellow “West Wing” cast members and I continue to voice our support for Justice For Vets, the only nonprofit organization dedicated to the expansion and improvement of veterans treatment courts across the country.

I want to express my sincere gratitude to all who have served. Your sacrifice will not go unnoticed on our watch. With love. With respect. With honor.

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