WASHINGTON – Actor Martin Sheen pressed Congress to authorize the$88.7 million needed to fund drug courts in 2012, and emphasized the importance of continuing to expand both traditional drug courts and those helping veterans in particular.
Sheen testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday during the hearing on drug courts, emphasizing that he was not the former president of the United States, but he had played one on TV. “The West Wing” star helped set up a drug court system in Berkeley, Calif. in 1996, with a focus on the addicted homeless in the city.
“We ask so much of our men and women in uniform, and they ask for so little in return,” Sheen said. “They are often the last to ask for counseling or treatment. It is our duty to care for our veterans when they suffer as a direct result of their service to our country.”
Veterans treatment courts are spin-off versions of civilian drug treatment courts that serve active duty members of the military and veterans who have committed low-offense drug crimes. There are 80 drug courts across the country, and more than 100 more in the works.
The courts focus on curbing recidivism by setting up veterans with treatment for substance abuse so they get the help they need and stay out of the jail system.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said veterans are returning from combat with invisible wounds that can lead to alcohol and drug abuse or other kinds of serious problems.
“About 30 percent of PTSD or traumatic brain injuries are undiagnosed,” Blumenthal said. “This makes them candidates for committing acts of violence if they go back out into society without understanding there are problems, he said.
The Obama administration released its national drug control strategy last week. It identified issues of concern to specific groups including active military service members, veterans and military families, said Benjamin B. Tucker, deputy director of state, local and tribal affairs for the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Tucker said that a recent Justice Department survey of prison inmates showed that about 60 percent of the 140,000 veterans in state and federal prisons were struggling with a substance abuse problem, and that approximately a quarter of them reported being under the influence of a drug at the time of their offense.
Jeanne LaFazia, chief judge of Rhode Island District Court, introduced the pilot program for her state’s first veterans treatment court. She testified that she had seen an increase in veterans and active duty members of the military in Rhode Island courts.
She added that family members said the defendants’ behavior had never been seen prior to their deployment or before multiple tours of duty, a phenomenon we are seeing in this war more than any other war. She advocates for the continued expansion of veterans treatment courts.
Tucker said the strengths of the treatment courts include lowering the likelihood of repeat offenses and connecting veterans to treatment and support services at the state and federal level so they can reenter their communities.
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said the efforts to continue funding for these courts is bipartisan.
“I wrote a letter to make sure that we keep funding for this and I had bipartisan support,” Franken said. “There really is a return on investment in this. It saves money but it also saves lives.”