Over the course of the last decade, courts have been confronted with an influx of veterans not seen in decades. In order to address the specialized concerns facing vets, individual judges or courts have created “veteran’s courts”; specialized dockets to handle cases involving returning service-members. Simultaneous with such court efforts have been attempts by state legislatures to enact legislation authorizing, or in some cases requiring, the use of such courts.
Several California counties already have veterans courts, but efforts to have a statewide statute for them have been vetoed twice before.
The first legislative attempt was in 2007′s SB 851. THis program authorized the state’s trial courts courts to develop and implement mental health courts, as specified, which may operate as a pre-guilty plea program and deferred entry of judgment program and allows parolee participation in mental health court, as specified. Although not specific to veterans, the bill did call for ensuring “that eligible parolees requiring veterans’ treatment and recovery services outside of their geographic location will be given consideration for those needed services on a case-by-case basis.” SB 851 was vetoed by Schwarzenegger who, while acknowledging the mental health courts were “an important component of public safety and for managing our criminal justice system” vetoed the bill because of the cost as well as his contention that it “allows people who have committed crimes to avoid punishment completely because of a mental health issue.” The Senate failed to override the veto.
AB 1925 of 2009 was more veteran-specific than the 2007 bill. This version would have authorized the state’s trial courts develop and implement preguilty plea programs, deferred entry of judgment programs, and/or postguilty plea veterans court programs. Schwarzenegger vetoed that bill claiming it was unnecessary
[A]uthorizing legislation is not required for the superior courts to establish specialized courts with dedicated calendars. I would urge the Judicial Council to examine the need for veterans’ courts, however, and establish appropriate guidelines for the superior courts to follow.
AB 674 of 2010, was enacted. Not a statutory veterans court program authorization per se, it did authorize courts to order a defendant who suffers from sexual trauma, traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, or mental health problems as a result of military service into a treatment program or veteran’s courts (already set up by the judiciary in certain counties, as noted above) for a period not to exceed that which the defendant would have served in state prison or jail.
While the provisions of this bill are well-intended, they create a clear expectation that our courts-already struggling with painful budget cuts–will establish a new program.
Given current budgetary constraints, the decision to adopt this kind of program-something already within the courts’ authority–is better left to the sound discretion of the judiciary.
The legislation was once again introduced in February 2012 as AB 2611, again with language that was identical to AB 674 of 2009 and AB 201 of 2011. This legislation was given final approval by the legislature on August 27. There is no indication of the bill having been formally submitted to the governor yet or whether it will face the same veto-fate as the others before it.