Path to rehabilitation for veterans who commit crimes awaits governor’s signature

Members of the Utah House work on the floor during a special session at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City, Utah, April 18, 2018. | Associated Press file photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — A bill designed to create a separate court system specifically for veterans introduced by a Southern Utah legislator is on Gov. Gary Herbert’s desk awaiting his signature.

When signed, the Veterans Treatment Court Act (HB100), introduced by  Rep. V. Lowry Snow R-St. George, will establish a statewide veterans’ court system administered at the local level by the existing courts. The concept is to provide veterans who have been arrested with a different option than incarceration.

Modeled on similar court programs managed in towns nationwide, it builds upon the thinking that for many veterans, criminal activity is a result of post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse.

“This bill was motivated to give back to our veterans,” Snow told St. George News in a previous interview. “In some ways, the most valuable part of it is that this allows the courts to access the United States Department of Veterans Affairs treatment options.

“The bill contemplates a collaboration between prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges to work out a probation program that helps treat vets’ issues to get them back on their feet and alleviate the stigma of having a conviction,” he said.

Currently in Utah, there are a handful of veterans’ courts handling misdemeanor and felony cases. However, Snow said this bill will set up a statewide standard so any court would be able to utilize the same process.

Rep. V. Lowry Snow

“Getting the bill on the governor’s desk is rewarding not only for me but for our veterans,” Snow said. “Being able to utilize criminal reform (approaches) as it relates to veterans and helping them deal with their issues in a non-criminal way and protect their criminal record is wonderful.”

Snow was pleased his bill received overwhelming support getting a unanimous vote in both chambers of the legislature.

After the bill is signed into law, Snow said he plans to work with the courts to see how they implement the statute.

Snow cited the success District Judge Royal Hansen has in his Salt Lake City courtroom. This voluntary program can take up to three years to complete. When finished, veterans with felony charges could have them reduced to misdemeanors. For others, their cases could be dismissed entirely.

In 2019, there were about 50 veterans participating in the program. Now in its fourth year, servicemen and women maintain a strict regiment of mental health counseling, drug tests and regular meetings with Hansen.

In a 2018 interview with the Deseret News, Hansen spoke to why he believed the program was a success.

“These people have been raised on the notion that when they’re given an order, they follow through and somebody’s life depends upon it,” Hansen said. “Frankly, their life depends on what they do (in my court) too.”

This is exactly the reasoning behind HB100, Snow said.

“The bill refers to PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and drug addiction,” Snow added. “Rather than treat our veterans in a punitive way, we can provide support services through the courts. I am really pleased to see this become law.”

Utah is home to more than 150,000 veterans, a number that continues to grow as more servicemen and women return home from tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Along with taking a proactive approach to rehabilitation and access to support services, there is a cost benefit in keeping veterans out of jail, Snow said.

In Utah, the cost of incarceration is $51 per inmate per day. Currently, there are more than 6,000 inmates in Utah prisons, and Snow said HB 100 will help some veterans from becoming just another statistic.

“Along with the costs, time sitting in jail is a poor substitute for treatment,” Snow said.

The statute will help ger veterans on their way, he added. It gives them a structured path to rehabilitation and the expense in terms of counseling can be done through Veterans Affairs, which relieves some of the financial burden on the state.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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