First Veterans Justice Court Opens in San Francisco
By Kellie Burdette Mendonca, Public Affairs Specialist
April 5, 2013
For the first time ever, a Veterans Justice Court (VJC) has opened at 575 Polk Street in San Francisco. What makes this court unique is that it applies to Veterans charged with non-violent alcohol or drug-related felonies who may be experiencing life difficulties such as mental health issues or homelessness.
Instead of spending time in jail, Veterans are diverted and sentences are either delayed or replaced with treatment for a period (usually 12-18 months) during which medical and mental health treatment is provided by the San Francisco VA Medical Center (SFVAMC). If this diversion is successful, the Veteran is less likely to repeat the behaviors and offenses that resulted in court system involvement.
“The new VJC is a collaboration between the San Francisco Superior Court, the Department of Public Health, community-based service agencies, and our Medical Center,” said Veterans Justice Outreach Specialist Elizabeth Brett, LCSW, who serves as a liaison between the court and the VA.
The intention of the VJC is to connect Veterans who have mental health, substance abuse and medical issues, to treatment in a timely manner, while avoiding lengthy incarcerations and further involvement with the justice system.
The VJC currently focuses on Veterans living in specific geographic areas in San Francisco: the Tenderloin, SOMA, Civic Center and Union Square, who have misdemeanors or non-violent felonies. The process includes clinical meetings where updates are provided by treatment staff, and a court process that allows each involved Veteran to get feedback on their progress from the judge.
The goal of the VJC is to help Veterans with untreated mental health and substance abuse, receive and stay connected to treatment over a longer period of time in lieu of incarceration. Treatment may range from residential treatment and structured outpatient treatment, to drop-in groups at the VA Downtown Clinic (401 3rd St. at Harrison). “Also, most of the Veterans involved in this court are currently homeless or at risk for homelessness, and this will offer them an opportunity to be considered for permanent housing through the VA’s HUD/VASH program,” said Brett. “Another benefit for the Veteran is, if he completes the VJC, his charges may be dismissed or reduced, which would be helpful in securing future employment and housing.”
It’s not all smooth sailing. The court incorporates both rewards and sanctions to keep Veterans motivated in treatment. Rewards may include praise, reduced court appearances, gift cards for lunch with the judge, and time off probation. Sanctions can include increased court appearances, community service, journaling—and in some more serious cases—to be placed back in custody.
“We are very excited to start the Veterans Justice Court in San Francisco, and we look forward to the court’s expansion to include Veterans throughout all of San Francisco, and to address more serious charges,” said Brett.
Other plans involve a Veteran peer mentoring program that will pair court participants with a peer mentor who will support the Veteran throughout his involvement in the court. “We are also developing relationships with local law schools to provide services for a legal clinic at our Downtown Clinic to address civil related legal issues for Veterans,” said Brett. “Often times our Veterans are caught in a cycle—they have civil legal issues which result in their becoming homeless, which leads to criminal justice involvement. Hopefully this legal service, along with the new VJC, will help prevent that cycle.”
For more information about the VJC or the Veterans Justice Outreach Program, contact Elizabeth Brett, LCSW, at email@example.com.