Is it constitutional for a state to create a special court for criminal offenders who are veterans that makes it easier for the charge to be dismissed?

October 23rd, 2012

Many states have created specialized criminal courts for certain cases–drug courts, domestic abuse courts, etc. I don’t see any problems with states creating these types of specialized courts that deal with specific types of criminal offenses. Anyone who commits those offenses will be directed to the appropriate court.

But what about courts created for specific people–namely veterans. Over two dozen states have established so-called “Veterans courts.” Here is a description from the Vets for Justice Group:

The Veterans Treatment Court model requires regular court appearances (a bi-weekly minimum in the early phases of the program), as well as mandatory attendance at treatment sessions and frequent and random testing for substance use (drug and/or alcohol).  Veterans respond favorably to this structured environment given their past experiences in the Armed Forces.  However, a few will struggle and it is exactly those veterans who need a Veterans Treatment Court program the most.  Without this structure, these veterans will reoffend and remain in the criminal justice system.  The Veterans Treatment Court is able to ensure they meet their obligations to themselves, the court, and their community.

But only veterans are eligible for these courts.

Veterans Treatment Courts allow jurisdictions to serve a large segment of the justice-involved veteran population as opposed to business as usual – having all veterans appear before random judges who may or may not have an understanding of their unique problems.  Because a Veterans Treatment Court judge handles numerous veterans’ cases and is supported by a strong, interdisciplinary team, he or she is in a much better position to exercise discretion and effectively respond than a judge who only occasionally hears a case involving a veteran defendant.  A Veterans Treatment Court judge better understands the issues that a veteran may be struggling with, such as substance addiction, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury, and military sexual trauma.  A Veterans Treatment Court judge is also more familiar with the Veterans Health Administration, Veterans Benefit Administration, State Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Service Organizations, and volunteer Veteran Mentors and how they all can assist veteran defendants.

In some states, such as in Delaware, veterans are eligible for special pretrial diversion programs that will result in a dismissal of charges  if certain conditions are satisfied (one of the attendees at the Mid-Atlantic Law & Society Conference was writing about Delaware veterans courts).

The goal of the Veteran’s Treatment Court is to divert this specialized population of veterans with mental illness who are charged with non-violent felonies and misdemeanor crimes away from jail and into appropriate rehabilitative programs. Veterans in the program must attend regular status conferences in Court, participate in the development of their treatment plans, and engage in community groups as required by their treatment. After completion of the program, prosecution for the offense will not proceed and the charges against the veteran will be dismissed.

From a matter of public policy, this seems to be a great idea. Veterans are deserving of any benefits our society can bestow on them–and leniency for minor offenses seems quite appropriate, especially if the veteran suffered from some sort of PTSD or other ailment induced by war.

But is this constitutional? Is it a problem that two defendants who each committed the same crime (they may have even been accomplices), but one was a veteran, one was not a veteran, may be subject to not only different sentences, but different courts. The defendant who was a veteran was placed in a special court where there were special opportunities for pretrial diversion to dismiss the charges. The defendant who was not a veteran was placed in a regular pretrial court that did not offer the same opportunities to avoid a jail term. Judges at sentencing can certainly take into consideration a person’s circumstances (such as military service or trauma from war), but by law, defendants are funneled to different courts with different chances of beating the charge.

Now this classification is based on employment status, so for purposes of equal protection it would be subject to rational basis review and would certainly survive. But what about as a matter of due process and fundamental fairness? Does the state have a valid rationale to subject the non-veteran to a more dranconian system of punishment, with less of a chance of pretrial diversion, than the veteran?

The only other example I could come up with where a person is assigned to a court with reduced punishment based not on the type of offense committed, but on the person’s individual character traits is juvenile courts. In In Re Gault (I just love citing that case!) the Supreme Court held that juveniles were entitled to due process, though special juvenile courts suffice.

I can’t imagine anyone would challenge such a program, though, it would be interesting if a non-veteran complained that he was denied the opportunity for pretrial diversion.