For military veterans who find themselves afoul of the law due to substance abuse or mental health issues, a system called veterans treatment courts is giving them an alternative to prison time.
The courts are modeled on the drug treatment or mental health treatment courts first established two decades ago.
"Words cannot describe the second chance that you guys gave me but if I had to, it would be that I am in a lifelong debt of gratitude," former Marine corporal Eric Gonzales said Monday as he addressed the audience at the Veterans Treatment Court Conference being held in Washington D.C.
Organized by Justice for Vets, the conference aims to broaden the reach of veterans treatment courts to help military vets, particularly those who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Justice for Vets estimates that since 2004 the number of veterans being treated for mental illness and substance abuse has increased by 38 percent, most of them among the 2.5 million American military service members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gonzales, who served in Afghanistan, said he has gotten his life back in order after he faced serious prison time for a high-speed pursuit fueled by substance abuse. He told the conference that the "court gave me the chance of a lifetime to work on my mental health rather than throwing me in prison where I would still be battling with my issues."
"Someday in the not-so-distant future when there is a vet treatment court in reach of every vet in need, we will look back on today as the moment we turned the corner," said Judge Robert Russell, who established the first veterans treatment court in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008.
Working with the local Veterans Affairs office, Russell set up the veterans-focused court after he noticed an increase in the number of veterans appearing before his Drug Court and Mental Health Court.
Retired Army general and drug czar Gen. Robert McCaffrey told the gathering that the main reason for the conference was "to train each other, to learn how to institutionalize and maintain this spectacular concept."
McCaffrey is the chairman of the Veterans Treatment Court Committee of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.
At the conference's opening session, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki told the audience that when he visited Judge Russell's courtroom in 2009 "the power of the veterans court concept was clear, undeniable and compelling."
"Since that visit, VA has been your full partner, agreeing to bring all of its capabilities to bear, wherever a judge is willing to establish a veterans court," said Shinseki, who praised the work of the veterans courts and highlighted his department's "Veterans Justice Outreach" program.
The program's 172 specialists work with courts to help veterans entering the justice system to get mental health or substance abuse care from the VA.
Statistics show the program is having a positive effect - two thirds of veterans who appear before treatment courts successfully complete their treatment, Shinseki noted.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is schedule to address the conference on Wednesday.