Some veterans accused of nonviolent crimes would benefit from a specialized court geared toward substance abuse and mental health treatment, according to a bill sponsored by Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley and a bipartisan group of Nevada legislators.
Buckley, a Las Vegas Democrat, last week introduced Assembly Bill 187, which would authorize district courts to establish special dockets for such defendants.
The legislation also would require Nevada judges to ask whether criminal defendants are veterans or members of the military, allowing judges to transfer cases to a veterans’ docket if one has been established.
"This takes into account the psychiatric issues facing veterans when they come home, to make sure they have access to the services they need to get back on their feet," Buckley said.
Nothing in present law prevents individual court systems from establishing veterans’ courts, but Buckley’s bill provides a framework for every system in the state to follow if they do.
The bill is scheduled to be discussed Wednesday at a legislative hearing on veterans’ issues.
Among its 30 co-sponsors is Assembly Minority Leader Heidi Gansert, a Reno Republican. The bill also has eight Senate co-sponsors.
More than 80,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. About 1,000 of those diagnoses have come in Southern Nevada.
Studies show that PTSD sufferers are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol.
A recent Review-Journal series chronicled the struggles of veterans returning from the nation’s current wars. Clark County court officials told the newspaper they might create a veterans-only court in response to the high rate of mental disorder among veterans from current and past wars.
The first such court in the nation was started last year in Buffalo, N.Y.
Since then, several other court systems and state legislatures have seized the idea.
Currently, judges in Nevada aren’t required to ask whether defendants have served in the military. Thus, courts have no way of tracking how many veterans pass through the justice system.
In veterans’ courts, criminal proceedings are suspended before sentencing, so that defendants can undergo counseling and attend drug, alcohol, or mental health treatment programs.
Their criminal cases usually are dismissed upon completion of the programs.
Though Clark County has applied for a federal grant to begin a veterans’ court here, some court officials and legislators believe existing resources from mental health and drug courts, cooperation from the VA, and the use of senior judges could help sustain a veterans-only court.
But Gansert said money for the courts could be an issue.
"It’ll depend on whether we have the finances to do it," she said. "But the success of other specialty courts shows these courts work."
Ramu Komanduri, chief of staff for the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare system, said the VA would help place defendants in veterans’ court with counselors and peer mentors.
"We have veterans coming back who for one reason or another risk being exposed to the legal system," Komanduri said. "We want to start an early intervention program that will help veterans avoid future entanglement in the legal system."
Contact reporter Alan Maimon at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0404.