Courthouses across San Diego County are a busy place for Veterans. On any given week, nearly 100 former military members pour through the local justice system, charged with anything from simple misdemeanors to serious felonies. It’s here that you can also find Joy Villavicencio, piecing together histories and details of offenses with attorneys and the accused. Through all the somber details, she is looking for hope.
Villavicencio works as a VA liaison whose job is to make recommendations for the Veterans Court, a local pilot program established 18 months ago to offer rehabilitative solutions for former service members with recent criminal histories or facing a criminal history. In her research, Villavicencio is looking for a tipping point in the Veteran’s service: a trauma or sometimes multiple traumas that can have a spiraling downward effect on the person’s future.
“This pilot program focuses on post-911 Veterans but has its roots with Veterans after Vietnam,” said Angela Simoneau, Veterans Justice Outreach Specialist for VA San Diego Healthcare System. “Many people were coming back from deployments in Vietnam with unaddressed posttraumatic stress disorder and legal issues and it subsequently impacted the rest of their lives – the ability to relate with family, get jobs, and keep from being homeless. This pilot program stresses immediacy in caring for Veterans who did not have a pattern of issues prior to a military trauma.”
Although the traumatic event is a primary factor in deciding whether or not to recommend a Veteran, it is not always the final deciding variable, according to Villavicencio. Every case is handled individually based on a person’s circumstances, and a person may be rejected for more serious offenses.
When a Veteran is recommended to the Veteran’s Court System, they must undergo a three-phase treatment program that lasts from 12 to 18 months. During each phase, the Veteran must submit a letter to the judge requesting permission to advance to the next level. In each phase is a set of requirements that include treatment specific to individual needs. Veterans in the program are also offered incentives for successful completion of phases. At the completion, fees can be waived, and felonies can be commuted, and under a new addition to California Penal Code 1170.9, judges may expunge charges completely.
Last year, the program met its local goals of 20 Veterans recommended for treatment under the Veterans court system. This year, the goal is 40. The local success rate has yet to be measured, but Villavicencio claims that eight Veterans have graduated from the program, so far, without recidivism.
The VA Justice Outreach Program works with Veteran’s Court to offer all available resources for treatment. This includes assessments by the VA Alcohol and Drug Treatment Program and Psychiatric Evaluation Clinic, referrals to residential treatment programs, screening for traumatic brain injury and posttraumatic stress disorder, and access to VA medical care.
With assistance by the VA Justice Outreach Program, other local assistance programs and a court system based on redemption instead of incarceration, Veterans have many options for turning despair into hope. As noted by Villavicencio: “It’s not a complete solution to past trauma, but it does give Veterans a bridge to getting their lives back in order.”