Drug Courts Helping Troubled Vets Off Streets

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Drug problems and mental health issues haunt thousands of U.S. veterans, which sometimes leads to trouble with the law and landing them in jail.

The problem is so severe, it was the spotlight topic of the Veterans Treatment Court Conference in Washington this week.

Returning to a normal life can be a big challenge for the defenders of our country, especially the 2.5 million who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One group, Justice for Vets, estimates that the number of veterans treated for mental illness or substance abuse has jumped nearly 40 percent in the past 10 years - as many as one in six.

What is there to do? Put them in prison? Leave them on the streets?

One answer might be drug courts. 

At the conference, advocates hailed the judge-supervised programs. They said programs have a high success rate in keeping people out of jail and can do the same for veterans trapped by addiction.

One such advocacy group, the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, participated in the discussion.

In a recent television interview on CNN, West Huddleston, CEO of the group, told just how powerful the programs can be.

"We literally can cut crime up to 50 percent in a community by using this drug court model verses sending somebody to prison, and that saves taxpayers a ton of money," Huddleston said. "Because you know offenders are not rearrested, they aren't victimizing society - you know it saves a ton of money."

"I was put into a drug court and the stability and the structure of drug court changed something. I started to have pieces of my life that I had lost come back to me," Alby Zweig, a drug court graduate, said. "I had the opportunity to go to law school. That led to working in the same public defender's office that had represented me in my case."

Drug court advocates want to see these programs target vets who are struggling with addiction. Government leaders are hopeful.

"Instead of either jailing veterans who have been brought up on charges or simply releasing them back to the streets, you have underwritten treatment as a powerful option for those who have broken our laws," said Secretary for Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki.

The NADCP claims 75 percent of their graduates remain arrest-free at least two years after leaving the program. They also say taxpayers save more than $3 in criminal justice costs for every dollar invested in the program.

"If we're gonna break the cycle between incarceration and homelessness, we'll have to raise our level of collaboration and leverage all of our assets to address these factors, which seem so pervasive when dealing with troubled veterans," Shinseki said.

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