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Expand veterans drug courts, senators told

Jul. 19, 2011 - 05:28PM   |   Last Updated: Jul. 19, 2011 - 05:28PM  |  
Martin Sheen testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee during a July 19 hearing on Capitol Hill.
Martin Sheen testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee during a July 19 hearing on Capitol Hill. (Larry French / NADCP via AP)
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Actor Martin Sheen pressed Congress on Tuesday to authorize the $88.7 million needed to fund veterans drug treatment courts in 2012, and urged lawmakers to keep expanding both civilian drug courts and those set up specifically to help veterans struggling with substance abuse.">Veterans drug treatment courts serve active-duty service members and veterans who have committed low-level drug crimes. The courts focus on curbing recidivism by helping veterans get treatment for substance abuse so they can stay out of the jail system.

Sheen, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, emphasized that he is not a former president, but has played one on TV. "The West Wing" star helped set up a civilian drug court system in Berkeley, Calif., in 1996, with a focus on the homeless addicts 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."

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 [post-traumatic stress disorder cases] 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."

The Obama administration released its national drug control strategy last week. It identified issues of concern to specific groups, including service members, veterans and military families, said Benjamin 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 about 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 been seeing more veterans and service members in Rhode Island courts.

She added that family members often said they had never seen the defendant act that way before they were deployed. She also advocates for the continued expansion of veterans treatment courts.

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