ST. GEORGE — The Utah State Legislature kicked off its general session Monday, and one of the first bills on the docket is the proposed Veterans Treatment Court Act, introduced by Southern Utah Rep. Lowry Snow and designated HB 100 in the 2020 Legislature.
If passed into law, HB 100 would establish a statewide veteran’s court system administered at the local level by the existing courts. The concept is to provide veterans who have been arrested with a different option than incarceration.
Modeled on similar court programs managed in towns nationwide, it builds upon the thinking that, for many veterans, criminal activity is a result of post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse.
“This bill was motivated to give back to our veterans,” Snow told St. George News. “In some ways, the most valuable part of it is that this allows the courts to access United States Department of Veterans Affairs treatment options. It contemplates a collaboration between prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges to work out a probation program that helps treat vets’ issues to get them back on their feet and alleviate the stigma of having a conviction.”
Currently in Utah, there are a handful of veterans courts handling misdemeanor and felony cases; however, Snow said, if his bill passes, it will set up a statewide standard so any court would be able to utilize the same process.
“It doesn’t mean building a separate courtroom or hiring separate judges,” Snow said. “This would be handled by our existing system. It will allow veterans who qualify through an agreement between the attorneys and approved by the judge to enter into a rehabilitation program.”
Snow cited the success District Judge Royal Hansen has in his Salt Lake City courtroom. This voluntary program can take up to three years to complete. When finished, vets with felony charges could have them reduced to misdemeanors, and for others, their cases could be dismissed entirely.
In 2019, there were about 50 vets participating in the program. Now in its fourth year, servicemen and women maintain a strict regiment of mental health counseling, drug tests and regular meetings with Hansen.
In a 2018 interview with the Deseret News, Hansen spoke to why he believed the program was a success.
“These people have been raised on the notion that when they’re given an order, they follow through and somebody’s life depends upon it,” Hansen said. “Frankly, their life depends on what they do (in my court) too.”
This is exactly the reasoning behind HB 100, Snow said.
“These values relate to discipline,” he said. “We get them to recall their military values, and the program builds upon them.”
With Utah being home to more than 150,000 veterans, a number that continues to grow as more servicemen and women return home from tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, Snow said he believes there is a “real need” for HB 100 both in Southern Utah and across the state.
“Ultimately it will also save money for the state because we are not locking these people up.”
In Utah, the cost of incarceration is $51 per inmate per day. Currently, there are more than 6,000 inmates in Utah prisons, and Snow said HB 100 will help some veterans from becoming just another statistic.
“It gets them on their way,” he said. ” It gives them a structured path to rehabilitation, and the expense in terms of counseling can be done through Veterans Affairs, which relieves some of the financial burdens on the state. This is one bill I feel really good about.”
Pat Lisi, commandant of Utah Dixie Detachment 1270 Marine Corps League, said he supports Snow’s bill.
“I realize that if the offense is egregious enough, you can’t use PTSD or being a veteran as an excuse,” Lisi said, “but if I had to rate this on a scale of one to 10, I’d give it a nine as being a great idea. Just tossing these guys and gals in jail isn’t going to help anyone.”
Although Army vet William Sommers has never been arrested, he also sees the value in HB 100.
“When I got home from Afganistan I struggled with heroin addiction,” Sommers said. “I never had to do anything illegal to feed my addiction, but I have friends who did. A vets court to help with treatment and reduce sentences is a great thing.”
HB 100 was introduced Monday and is currently in the House Judiciary Committee.
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