California’s Veterans Treatment Court is an intensive rehabilitation program that allows certain former military members who are facing criminal charges to possibly avoid jail and a criminal record. In order to be considered, the veteran needs to be
- eligible for probation, and
- suffering from addiction or mental illness such as PTSD.
Depending on the case, defendants who successfully finish Veterans Court will have their charges reduced or dismissed. Most people who complete this program do not get arrested again.
In this article, our California criminal defense attorneys answer frequently-asked-questions about Veterans Court in California.
- 1. What is Veterans Court in California?
- 2. Am I eligible?
- 3. How do I apply?
- 4. Do I have to go to jail?
- 5. Will my case get dismissed?
- 6. What happens if I violate the rules?
- 7. What if I do not finish?
- 8. Does my jurisdiction offer Veteran’s Court?
Veterans Treatment Court is an alternative sentencing program for criminal defendants who are veterans struggling with mental illness. Under Penal Code 1170.9, this program provides veteran-specific treatment such as rehab and counseling in lieu of incarceration. Depending on the case, the veteran may be able to avoid prison,
- get an early termination of probation,
- get a felony charge reduced to a misdemeanor conviction, and/or
- get a criminal charge completely dismissed.
Judges offer this program as a way of acknowledging the difficult time many former military personnel have acclimating to civilian life after facing combat. Prosecutors understand that mental health problems often lead to brushes with the law. Vets have risked their lives for our freedom and have earned any special treatment courts can offer. So Veterans Treatment Court was developed to provide important life tools to help vets fortify their mental health and avoid criminal behavior again. In fact, this program is often the first opportunity vets have to get their mental disorders or addictions formally diagnosed.
Veterans Court programs are tailored to the individual defendant. Many vets get to live at home while they complete the program. But some are committed to a residential treatment program and earn sentence credits for the actual time they serve in residential treatment. The program usually involves at least 18 months of treatment (though it can be as short as 1 year for certain misdemeanor offenses).
This program is extremely structured, but the tone is compassionate and constructive instead of punishing or adversarial. Each participant is supported by a “team” that includes not only the judge and probation officer but also a veteran mentor, a VA Justice Outreach specialist, a VA case manager, and mental health counselors. This interdisciplinary network provides a holistic type of treatment whereby the veteran hopefully improves in all areas of his/her life. (See California Penal Code 1170.9).
Former military members accepted into Veterans Treatment Court are placed on formal probation and begin the first of four “phases:”
- Phase I. This is the toughest, most demanding part of this program. Vets get a full evaluation and assessment to help court staff customize a treatment plan and conditions of compliance. Phase I typically lasts four (4) months and involves weekly court meetings where staff gives the judge progress reports. Vets also have regular meetings with their probation officer and VA liaison and submit to random drug tests.
- Phase II. This is a less strenuous form of Phase I in that there are fewer weekly meetings. This typically lasts for three (3) months.
- Phase III. The frequency of drug testing and meetings continues to decrease. This typically lasts for five (5) months.
- Phase IV. This phase serves as a transition from Veterans Court back to real life. Vets still have treatment and meetings, but the focus is looking forward to the next step and functioning as a law-abiding adult. Once a vet completes this program, he/she will receive referrals for job training, schooling, and/or headhunter services.
Throughout this process, vets are subject to random narcotic and alcohol testing as well as unannounced home visits. Judges are looking for vets to demonstrate an eagerness to improve. Participants who never miss court appearances, deliver clean drug tests and show humility are more likely to move into phase IV the fastest. The court staff at Riverside and Orange County preach “three simple rules”: 1. Be Honest, 2. Show up, 3. Try Hard.
The requirements vary from court to court, and the judge has full discretion to admit or deny applicants. In most cases, the participants have to meet the following criteria:
- the defendant must have served in the military (including Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marines, National Guard or reserves);
- the defendant must have pleaded guilty in a criminal case;
- the defendant must be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI), Military Sexual Trauma (MST), substance abuse, or other diagnosed mental health disorders;
- the defendant must agree to participate in a 15- to 18-month long program;
- the veteran must also be otherwise eligible for probation; and
- the veteran has an honorable discharge, though courts can make exceptions (having a disability caused by military service helps)
Vets accused of sex or gang-related crimes are usually disqualified. But courts will consider on a case-by-case basis vets accused of violent felonies. Vets increase their chances of acceptance into the program if they demonstrate enthusiasm and resolve to get better.
After a vet finishes the program, the judge considers the following factors when determining whether the treatment was a success.
- the veteran’s completion and degree of participation in education, treatment, and rehabilitation as ordered by the court;
- the veteran’s progress in formal education;
- the veteran’s development of career potential;
- the veteran’s leadership and personal responsibility efforts; and
- the veteran’s contribution of service in support of the community.
- were charged with a misdemeanor;
- have never been given diversion in the past; and
- have not been previously convicted of a similar offense
Therefore, Veterans Court may be a viable option for people who are not eligible for Military Diversion.
The process varies by jurisdiction. An attorney or public defender should be able to help the veteran determine his/her eligibility and request the court to admit the veteran into the program.
The court may then order a mental health assessment and preliminary evaluations and recommendations by a probation officer, specialists with VA Veterans Justice Outreach, and Veterans Court staff. Often the judge will meet with the applicant and his/her defense attorney prior to deciding whether to accept the applicant into the program.
Remember that a prerequisite for joining the program is pleading guilty to the underlying offense. If a vet is accepted into the program, he/she is typically given a 14-day “window period” where he/she may withdraw their guilty plea and resume the usual criminal prosecution process.
Vets who get accepted into the program find that they are largely segregated from other criminal defendants. Each Veterans Court has its own courtroom and judge, who hears only vets’ cases while court is in session.
In many cases, veterans who successfully complete Veterans Treatment Court can avoid going to prison or jail. Though in some cases, Veterans Treatment Court decreases–not eliminates–the prison or jail sentence.
In many cases, veterans who successfully complete the program have their criminal case completely dismissed and expunged (pursuant to P.C. 1203.4). In other cases, the charge gets reduced to a lesser offense, such as a felony being reduced to a misdemeanor.
If the judge dismisses the veteran’s case following completion of the program, the veteran is not obligated to disclose the case on job applications or under oath. (An exception is if the veteran later applies to be in law enforcement.)
It depends on the case. Repercussions range from a judicial slap on the wrist to extra punishments to being disqualified from the program. The defendant’s attorney would try to persuade the judge to give the defendant another chance to complete the program.
In most circumstances, the case will resume as if the defendant never entered the program. Then he/she will be treated like any other defendant. Depending on the case, the defendant may face fines and/or prison time.
Consult with an attorney or do an internet search for locations. If there is no program close by, it may still be possible to do some kind of court-approved program.
Twenty-one California courts authorized Veterans Treatment Programs with upwards of 100 locations throughout the state. For addresses and contact information, see our article on how to find a veterans court in your California county.
Call a California criminal defense attorney…
Are you a veteran who is facing criminal charges in California? Thank you for your service. And our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys want to help. We may be able to get your charge reduced or dropped. Or we may be able to get you enrolled in your local Veterans Treatment Court so that you avoid jail and get your case dismissed while you receive the vital help you need and earned.