When New Hampshire veterans enter Judge James Leary’s Veterans Court in Nashua, they see the military flags decorating the courtroom.
“It lets our veterans know this is a different courtroom,” said Jo Moncher, chief of community-based military programs for the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services.
A bill passed by the State Senate on Thursday would expand access to alternative sentencing programs for veterans, like the one at the Nashua court.
House Bill 652 allows the state’s superior and circuit courts to establish veterans tracks for members of the military and veterans who are dealing with substance abuse and mental health issues.
Rather than sending veterans to jail or prison for minor crimes, the programs impose alternative treatment programs on veterans. They have to demonstrate they are following through and meeting all their conditions; if not, they risk getting a jail sentence instead.
There are currently six such tracks in courts around the state; many work with existing drug courts to keep veterans struggling with PTSD, traumatic brain injury, other mental health issues and substance abuse out of jail.
Getting veterans who may be self-medicating with drugs or alcohol on a road to recovery is a focal point of the program. It also connects them to mental health services at the VA or community mental health centers around the state.
Altogether, the program has been around for the past three years and serves 50 veterans across the state.
“Our whole goal is to create a strong military-civilian partnership,” Moncher said. “We are building up collaborative momentum.”
The reason veterans have separate tracks is the higher likelihood they’ve experienced trauma, PTSD or a traumatic brain injury from combat or other experiences in the military.
The VA estimates that between 11-20 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffer from PTSD each year. It estimates as many as 30 percent of Vietnam veterans have struggled with the disorder during their lifetime.
Moncher said having a military background “adds a very different flavor to the issues they struggle with.”
Similarly, Moncher said judges often remark on how different veterans and members of the military behave when they are in court.
“When vets present themselves, they’re different,” she said. “They want to know what the rules are, they follow those rules.”
The bill’s main sponsor is state Rep. Al Baldasaro, a Londonderry Republican.
Baldasaro said the goal of the bill is to make sure veterans court tracks are all following the same standards.
“It puts them all on the same sheet of music,” he said. “They’re all doing the same thing, they all have the same annulment process, the same procedures.”
Baldasaro said there’s no extra cost to the state, as the program helps connect veterans to federal services like health care at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The bill also requires a veteran sentenced by a mental health court to wait a year after finishing all the programs and conditions before they file an annulment petition, where the current period is six months.
(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, email@example.com or on Twitter @ella_nilsen.)