For the past three years, our county has been assisting U.S. military veterans who have committed non-violent misdemeanor and felony offenses to get treatment instead of being incarcerated.
The Veterans Treatment Docket, which was launched in 2015 as the first of its kind in Virginia, is designed to address the mental health and substance abuse issues that often result from the combat stresses of military service. The goal is to restore the veteran to the community and the family, capable of facing the future in a productive way without reoffending and without resorting to alcohol or drugs. Across the U. S. more than 230 court-supervised veterans treatment programs have been created in courtrooms since 2008.
There are currently 14 veterans participating in the county’s docket. Ten others have graduated.
The Veterans Treatment Docket was started by Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Penney Azcarate, who was a General District Court judge at the time. Also a Marine Corps veteran, she had seen veterans coming back from overseas and finding themselves in her courtroom time and time again. She established the docket to address young combat veterans’ unique issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
Since the Treatment Docket opened its doors, it has connected veterans struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues to treatment, housing and employment benefits. Three dockets have been established at each level of the court system and continue to expand. Two more dockets will begin operating in Virginia during 2018.
“Fairfax has assisted in establishing statewide guidelines for these dockets and our model is being used across Virginia,” Azcarate says. “Our success is due to the constant commitment of all the agencies, organizations and mentors that are involved in the day-to-day operation of these dockets. They are the true unsung heroes who are fighting the homefront battle of healing; one veteran at a time.”
The court-supervised treatment program asks an intensive commitment from the participants, outlined in a 30-page handbook. Participants are required to appear in court twice each month, and the judge receives a progress report from the treatment team regarding drug test results, attendance and participation in treatment and compliance with the probation officer. Veterans also must complete 100 hours of community service.
Each veteran is supported throughout the 18- to 24-month program by a mentor, also a veteran, who is a coach, guide and role model. They receive special training for the job.
“The mentors are a crucial link for the veterans,” explains Don Northcutt, who coordinates the docket. “They have shared similar experiences, so have a special understanding of military life and transitioning back to civilian life and can relate to them peer to peer.”
This may strike many as an odd thing to say about being arrested for a DUI: “That night, as awkward as it might sound, the stars aligned. This was meant to happen.”
For Marine Corps veteran Chris Rios it was the beginning of a journey that eventually did culminate in a courtroom—for a celebration. In late January, Rios’ graduation from the Veterans Treatment Docket marked the successful completion of 24 months of comprehensive treatment.
Rios was joined at the ceremony by Sameer Khan, the county police officer who stopped him. Khan, a veteran himself, says that Rios’ success story, “may really resonate with our generation of veterans.”