When Sgt. David Taptto entered Idaho’s Second Judicial District Veterans Treatment Court, he joined the growing ranks of U.S. Military Veterans who have returned from service with substance abuse or mental health issues, and subsequently found themselves embroiled in the criminal justice system for the first time in their lives.
Combining Justice With Treatment
The Second Judicial District is replicating a model that has shown tremendous success around the country to help combat Veterans who are involved in the criminal justice system. Participants come to the court for offenses like drunk driving, assault and possession of a controlled substance. Many suffer from PTSD, traumatic brain injuries (TBI) or mental health issues related to their service, with corresponding alcohol or substance abuse problems.
Because of the district’s size and rural geography, some participants have to travel as much as two hours to attend the program. But participants and court personnel alike see the value. “This program showed up just when I needed it,” Sgt. Taptto says. He was suffering from combat-related PTSD and came into the court because of a felony DUI.
“Vet Court was a tough adjustment in the beginning, but it helped me to make sense of all the chaos in my life and provided me with tools to negotiate life without alcohol. Without this program I’d be in jail or worse,” he says. In September, he became the court’s first graduate and now mentors others in the program. To date, 15 Vets have entered the 18-month program, and at least five more Vets are looking forward to graduating before next spring.
Offering Support, Building Community
While Idaho’s Second District has a number of specialty courts—including drug and mental health dockets—supporters of the VTC felt it was essential to create a program specifically for the area’s justice-involved Veterans. According to problem-solving court manager Lisa Martin, many of the Veterans in the program become involved with alcohol or drugs in an attempt to self-medicate for issues like PTSD or pain from service-related injuries. “Veterans have unique experiences that bring them into the justice system, and they benefit from being surrounded by other veterans who understand where they are coming from,” she says.
The program requires participants to attend treatment or counseling, submit to drug or alcohol testing, report regularly to court, and complete activities like education, work or volunteering. But beyond assuring participants fulfill their obligations, the court helps them connect to services at the VA’s Community-Based Outpatient Client, mental health resources, counseling and safe and sober housing options.
And in addition to in-court peer mentoring, the court hosts a monthly meal for participants, staff, and volunteers. The meal, which includes an educational talk, provides an informal way for Veterans to tap into a support system and socialize with peers in a sober setting—elements that can help sustain long-term sobriety.
This unique approach of accountability and community is helping participants restart their lives. Veterans who successfully complete the program have the opportunity to have their offense charge dismissed or reduced, which can open new doors. For example, having his felony DUI reduced to a misdemeanor means that David Taptto can pursue his dream career in social work—a field that might have been off-limits with a felony conviction on his record.
Alcohol Issues Common Among Combat Veterans
According to Justice for Vets, nearly 30 percent of military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan met the criteria for alcohol abuse. And between 60 and 80 percent of Vietnam Veterans seeking PTSD treatment have alcohol use problems. Those statistics underscore why all Veterans in the program are required to stay drug- and alcohol-free and undergo regular drug testing and alcohol monitoring.
Recently the court started using Continuous Alcohol Monitoring (CAM) technology to help alcohol-dependent participants get and stay sober. The court purchased the alcohol monitoring bracelets with a block grant from the City of Lewiston.
Taptto underwent SCRAM CAM monitoring for six months. “It was a big blessing,” he says. “I knew I would be held accountable if I drank, that the court would find out. The bracelet put me in a good place and helped with my recovery. Without it I might still be in the program.”