Monday, August 31, 2009

Prison or treatment for military criminals with PTSD?

Posted August 31st, 2009 by Leo Shane in Stripes Central

A recent change in Texas law could give some criminals with combat-related PTSD an easy choice: jail, or mental health treatment outside of prison walls.

The El Paso Times reported this weekend that officials there are in the process of establishing a new Veterans Mental Health Treatment court, which would handle cases of veterans and soldiers who have been diagnosed with mental health problems related to their combat experience.

The most serious violent offenses -- rape and murder, for example -- would still be handled by traditional courts. But drunken driving charges, minor drug offenses and domestic abuse cases could all be handled by the special courts, and individuals convicted of the crimes could be ordered to various mental health treatment options in lieu of lengthy prison time.

Post-traumatic stress disorder and other combat-related mental health issues are a tricky problem for normal courts; Stripes reporters have been following the issue for years.

Defense attorneys insist that not considering the mental health problems while sentencing a veteran is overlooking a major mitigating factor. Prosecutors say that excuse only goes so far, especially in more violent and premeditated crimes.

This new trend of veterans courts started 18 months ago in Buffalo with Judge Robert Russell. Other judicial bodies around the country have quickly jumped on the idea; about 20 cities have or are considering similar programs. Colorado Springs – which has already had to deal with a series of violent crimes at Ft. Carson – is one of them.

Texas State Rep. Joe Moody told the El Paso Times that the new program there is not intended to be a "get out of jail free" card for soldiers and veterans. But walking the fine line between rehabilitating troops who need help and punishing those who deserve it will be a tricky task, even for a court with better knowledge and experience with mental health issues.

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