JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri lawmakers debated Monday if it is fair for some veterans who served abroad to face the state's penal system at home.
Sen. Will Kraus, R-Lee's Summit, presented a bill before a Senate committee that would allow the state's circuit court jurisdictions to create special treatment courts for veterans who commit non-violent crimes.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs completed a study of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans in October that found 30 percent suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Thirty-two states have jurisdictions that feature the special courts, and national supporters have argued that when veterans suffer from PTSD or other mental health and substance abuse issues, they may commit crimes that stem from their service. Supporters further argue the harshness of the penal system may exacerbate the problem.
Kraus said the overall intent of his bill is to address the issue and provide a framework for the courts statewide.
Missouri already has veterans courts in four jurisdictions: St. Louis City, Jackson County, Kansas City and a six county jurisdiction in Southeast Missouri. Kraus' bill would extend the service throughout the entire state by allowing other jurisdictions to create them or by sending participants to jurisdictions that already have them.
Kraus acknowledged the language in his bill and the proposal itself will require further clarity. Kraus did mention he would like the courts to be modeled after the drug courts created in Jackson County in 1993 when Sen. Claire McCaskill served as prosecuting attorney.
Those courts handle offenders whose criminal behavior is believed to result primarily from illegal drug use. Instead of criminal prosecution, offenders complete supervised, community-based drug treatment programs. The drug courts in Jackson County became the model for its veterans courts, which work with local veterans organizations and mentors to devise the drug or mental health treatment necessary.
Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, said veterans are people like everyone else and expressed concern this special treatment would be abused in some instances.
"I don't want to just have some veteran do some bad act and say hey, I'm a veteran and this does not go to the usual court it goes to the veterans court," Schaaf said.
Kraus said the courts would merely serve as a tool for prosecutors and the circuit court. The courts would require defendants to be screened before appearing and would not be utilized when more severe crimes are committed.
Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice William Price called for more veterans courts in his State of the Judiciary in 2011, but the idea has yet to become law. Dewey Riehn, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars said he hopes the bill is successful, but he shared Kraus' concern the bill lacks important detail.
Riehn said veterans are concerned the bill does not standardize the model to be used throughout the state.
"If we are going to have veteran's courts in Missouri, and they are needed badly, we should have some standardization of the model to be used," Riehn said.
Riehn said the statutes should be specific as to how the courts are to be set up and how treatment will be administered.
No one testified against the bill in the Senate committee hearing.