New Miami-Dade court aims to rehabilitate war veterans

Court moves to decriminalize mental illness in military veteran population

MIAMI – Larry Chester, a U.S. Marine who now works as a court bailiff, led the Pledge of Allegiance during a courthouse ceremony to mark the beginning of the new Veterans Treatment Court in Miami-Dade. 

The powerful move to decriminalize mental illness in the military veteran population in Miami-Dade was a week after a deranged Army veteran killed five during a shooting at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

It had been in the works for a long time, as part of a national rehabilitation model that relies on the transformative power of camaraderie among veterans.

"Veterans court is not about special treatment," Miami VA director Paul Russo said. "It's providing the right treatment."

Now veterans charged with non-violent crimes will get a second chance if they qualify for the program. Those who are in need of mental health treatment will have access to specialized programs, including substance abuse rehabilitation treatment, instead of jail time. 

One in six veterans who served in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom suffer from substance abuse, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

The first veteran treatment court was founded in New York in 2008 stemming from the Drug Courts and Mental Health Courts that started in the '90s. The goal was to rescue tortured veterans from drug abuse, homelessness, suicide and crime. 

In September, Associate Attorney General Bill Baer said the Department of Justice was awarding $4 million to establish 13 more courts in 11 states. Each county will get a grant of about $250,000. 

"They combine rigorous treatment and personal accountability to break the cycle of drug use and criminal behavior," Baer said last year. 

Miami's Veterans Affairs healthcare office celebrated the preventive effort on Friday with Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle and Public Defender Carlos Martinez. U.S. Marine Brigadier General Paul Rock, the director of strategy, plans and policy at the U.S. Southern Command, was also in attendance. 

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