Veterans Treatment Court – A New Way to Address Veterans Involved in the Criminal Justice System Currently at the State Level – And Why it is Needed at the Federal Level
By Colonel DJ Reyes, US Army (RET), Senior Veteran Mentor Program Coordinator, 13th Judicial Circuit Veterans Treatment Court, Tampa FL
*This is an article from the Fall 2023 issue of Combat Stress
A National Dilemma: Based on US Department of Veterans Affairs reporting, since September 11, 2001, and during the longest continuous US conflict in history / Global War on Terror, over 2.6 million men and women have voluntarily served in uniform which is less than 1% of the current US population. Yet over 20 Veterans a day commit suicide. Over 700,000 Veterans are in some phase of the US criminal court process. One out of six Veterans have a substance abuse problem. And, one out of five Veterans have been diagnosed with some type of mental illness or cognitive impairment. This includes Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) from roadside bombs and suicide bombers (IEDs). In many cases, upon returning stateside, these Veterans subsequently commit a criminal offense which can be directly attributed to a service or combat related injury. Sadly, in many cases these Veterans are not properly identified, and they become lost in the criminal justice system without the necessary help, medical treatment and therapies. This encourages a vicious cycle of hopelessness, non-recovery, and ultimately, serious injury or death.
The Response: The Veterans Treatment Court, or VTC, is a hybrid court, blending aspects of the traditional Drug, Criminal, Mental Health, and Diversionary Court processes. Its primary focus is on the effective identification, treatment, and successful reintegration of every enrolled Veteran back into his or her local community. There are currently over 620 VTCs or Veteran dockets found throughout most of the United States. In Tampa FL and the 13th Judicial Circuit’s VTC, the program has received accolades and recognition from the local, state and national levels since its inception in late 2013. In 2019 Tampa’s VTC swelled to over 225 defendants.
The Tampa VTC Volunteer Veteran Mentor Program and the 501c3: It is often said that the key ingredient that directly accounts for Tampa VTC’s success (88 – 92% graduation rate) and local county tax cost savings lies within the ranks of its Volunteer Veteran Mentor Program. Established and led by its Founder and Mentor Program Coordinator, Colonel DJ Reyes (US Army retired) since its inception in October 2013, the current VTC Volunteer Mentor Program, and its 501c3 – Mentors For Hillsborough County Veterans (MHVC) – are comprised of a Senior Mentor Council, and currently 50 active Veteran volunteers (in 2019 the Mentor Corps rose to over 100 active serving) who serve as peer mentors to their assigned VTC Veterans and ensure that the Veterans “stay on track” and comply with the VTC Judge’s court mandates.
Experience wise, the Senior Mentor Council (retired senior grade and non-commissioned officers) alone enjoys over 250 years of combat, operational, and command leadership experiences ranging from the Vietnam War to the Global War on Terror in the Middle East and North Africa. In direct support to the VTC Judge, they oversee, direct and train fellow volunteer mentors that are assigned to 7 Task Force Teams – each mentor receives one or more Veteran defendants to individually mentor, encourage, and assist in navigating through the VTC requirements in a program that adheres to the national problem solving court model set forth by the National Association of Drug Courts Professionals (NADCP). This is a 5 phased model (1st phase – 30 days; 2nd – 5th phases are 60 days each) where the judge works collaboratively with all VTC supporting organizations to focus treatment and wellness.
The Veteran Mentors also provide critical guidance and resources (thru the MHCV) to assist the VTC Veterans in the areas of alternative transportation, employment, educational assistance, food, housing and clothing support. To support this effort, the Senior Mentor Council relies on an extensive community resource network at the local through federal levels. In Hillsborough County, this includes local strategic partnerships with the following: educational institutions (Keiser University, National Louis University, Stetson and Western Michigan (Cooley) Law Schools); legal support organizations (Hillsborough County Bar Association’s Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, Bay Area Legal Services); religious institutions (Idlewild Baptist Church, Christ the King Men’s Ministry and The Society of St Joseph, Knights of Columbus); various law firms; businesses and chain stores (Walmart earlier supported the “Bikes for Vets” Program); and numerous local chapters representing Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs) that include the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), Veterans of Foreign War (VFW), The American Legion, and Team Red White and Blue (RWB). The Program also partnered its efforts with local 501c3 organizations that support local Veteran needs and programs. These include the Corporations to Develop the Communities of Tampa (CDC), Hillsborough County Veterans Helping Veterans, and the Diversity Action Coalition (DAC). Finally, the Mentors closely interact with James Haley Veterans Administration to ensure medical support requirements are provided in accordance with the VTC Judge directed orders.
Spreading the Gospel – Nationally and Internationally – Ongoing Initiatives.
In support of the awareness and education efforts, former VTC Judge HON. Gregory P. Holder and Colonel DJ Reyes travelled to Washington DC in October 2016 to brief both Chief Judge Robert Davis (US Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims) and (then) US Secretary of Veterans Affairs, HON Robert McDonald. Colonel Reyes also briefed the Program’s successes to (then) FL Governor Rick Scott, Mayor Bob Buckhorn, and at the 2017 FL Bar Association and Conference in Boca Raton. In 2019, as part of (then) US Congressman Charlie Crist’s (FL-13th) sponsorship of the VTC Coordination Act of 2019, DJ Reyes was invited to brief the Tampa VTC and Mentor Program in the White House, and before select Congressmen on Capitol Hill.
In 2022, by specific request of Federal Magistrate Judge Anthony Porcelli (US Middle District Court of Florida), Colonel Reyes agreed to voluntarily mentor a Veteran defendant currently on federal charges. Judge Porcelli’s request recognized the current “gap” between the State and Federal level regarding the Veterans Treatment Court, and understood that Colonel Reyes could act as the interface between the Federal, State, Veterans Affairs medical center, and other local community support services to help the Veteran obtain the necessary medical, legal, housing, education, and employment resources required for rehabilitation, treatment, recovery, and successful reintegration back into the local community.
Also in 2022, Colonel Reyes joined forces with the Veterans Court Coalition (VCC), led by retired Chief Justice, Kansas Supreme Court Hon. Lawton Nuss to address legal support to Native American combat Veterans currently living on the US reservations. As of this article, Reyes and Nuss have been coordinating with the US Tribal Commission, Navajo Nation (AZ/NM), and the Pottawatomie Tribe (KS) to determine how best to provide advisory and training support regarding the establishment of their VTC and Veteran Mentor programs.
Additionally, and on the international front, Colonel Reyes was requested in 2022 to join the training and advisory committee of Judges, National Judicial College (Reno NV) to assist the Ukrainian Ministry of Courts and Judges in their VTC program establishment. Reyes has been instrumental in providing assistance in the ZOOM training sessions thus far.
Two additional issues regarding national level Veteran support have grown from this VTC movement. The first is Colonel Reyes’ direct involvement and advocacy in federal legislation addressing Veteran illnesses resulting from toxic exposures (“burn pits”) during deployments in the Middle East. Known as the “Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxins” or PACT Act, Colonel Reyes worked with FL (US) Congressman Gus Bilirakis, Congresswoman Kathy Castor, and US Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott to push for the successful bill passage and subsequent POTUS signature. As a result of this action, Colonel Reyes was invited by US Congresswoman Castor to attend the February 2023 POTUS State of the Union.
The second issue involves Veteran homelessness, which is often noted with Veteran defendants entering the VTC program. In January 2023, Colonel Reyes was nominated and appointed by US Secretary of Veterans Affairs Hon. Denis McDonough to the US Secretary VA Advisory Committee on Homeless Veterans (ACHV). This Committee is responsible for reviewing all US VA policies and procedures regarding VA Veteran Homelessness and Housing programs and providing strategies to help mitigate and eradicate Veteran Homelessness across the USA.
In summary: The VTC’s actions in getting Veterans the help they require and deserve are consistent with the military mantra of “leave no soldier behind on the battlefield.” It is truly an “all hands-on deck effort” – local, state and federal agencies and non-profit organizations collaborating efforts to achieve the mission. It is the hope of many that this state level initiative will eventually be expanded to the US Federal Court level to service many more Veterans involved in the criminal justice system.
Thursday, November 2, 2023
2023 Tampa Bay Ethics Award – Honoring Colonel DJ Reyes
The son of a retired Korean War and Vietnam War Veteran, DJ Reyes is a retired US Army Colonel with over 33 years of faithful service to our great nation. Col. Reyes earned his bachelors, masters and juris doctor degrees from the University of Notre Dame, the US Naval War College and Temple University School of Law, and his leadership resume also includes key command and staff positions in special forces/special operations, military intelligence, infantry, airborne, and air assault. Combat and contingency deployments included tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, North Africa, Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti and Korea.
In 2013, Col. Reyes established the volunteer Veteran Mentor Program that directly supports the nationally acclaimed Veterans Treatment Court (VTC) (Tampa FL). This court assists veterans in trouble with the law due to a disorder or condition incurred during military service. He is a national Veteran advocate who has briefed in the White House and on Capitol Hill and who lobbied for the successful passage of HR886 (VTC national funding) and HR3967/S3373 PACT Act (Toxic Exposures)/Burn Pits). Col. Reyes sits on various national, US Congressional, and State veteran advisory boards.
In 2023, the US Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) appointed Col. Reyes to the VA Advisory Committee on Homeless Veterans. In 2022, Col. Reyes received both the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) Distinguished Service Award and Military Order of the World Wars (MOWW) National Citation for his community service. In 2021, Col. Reyes was selected by Florida Governor DeSantis and Cabinet for induction into the Florida Veterans Hall of Fame. In 2020, Col. Reyes received the Tampa Bay Lightning (NHL) Community Hero Award, the Bay Area Legal Services’ Lieutenant General James Peake Award for Community Service to Veterans in the Judicial system and the University of Notre Dame’s Reverend William Corby Award for Distinguished Military and Community Service. MOAA also selected Col. Reyes in the first “The ChangeMakers” edition for his impact on veterans in the criminal justice system. In 2018, WFLA (NBC) recognized Col. Reyes as Tampa’s “GR8 Inspiration” for his life saving work in the VTC. In 2016, Col. Reyes was awarded the Hillsborough County Bar Association’s “Liberty Bell Award” for his exemplary efforts in promoting, and advocating for, the legal judicial system and process as it supports the local veterans and special needs communities.
Col. Reyes supports efforts in combatting human trafficking in the Tampa Bay region. He is the current Vice-Chair on Tampa’s Citizens Review Board, which oversees Tampa Police and community interaction and issues. Other boards include WFTS-ABC’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Panel and the National Louis University’s Advisory Board for Organizational Leadership. Finally, Col. Reyes supports his wife Julie’s Diversity Action Coalition (501c3) that supports the military EFMP program and local community programs for the special needs and disabled.