Study Valor Act before changing it

Sensationalizing outlier cases provides distorted picture of law

MASSACHUSETTS IS ON the brink of abandoning one of the most innovative criminal justice initiatives for veterans in the nation.

In 2012, after a significant amount of research and debate, the Valor Act became law. Section 16 of the act established an alternative legal pathway for veterans charged with crimes that could reasonably be connected to post-traumatic stress associated with their service. This pathway allowed a judge to grant a 14-day continuance of the case pending an assessment from a mental health professional and gave the court the option to provide professional mental health treatment in lieu of imprisonment.

By 2012, more than 35,000 new troops had returned to Massachusetts as post-9/11 veterans. For those of us in veterans services, the Valor Act was an innovative solution to the challenges facing some returning vets who, despite clean records prior to and during service, had struggled with reintegration and became involved with the criminal justice system.

Under Valor Act diversions, more than 2,000 male and female veterans were offered assessments for service-connected mental health issues prior to arraignment of their criminal case. In many of these instances the court was able to identify post-traumatic stress or other service-connected conditions as contributing factors to the charges. In these cases, the courts had the option to address those issues with an eye towards treatment and reintegration back to productive and meaningful lives. Without diversion, the typical criminal penalties, such as incarceration, would likely only have worsened the problems.

Now in its sixth year, it is time to study the Valor Act to determine where it is meeting expectations and where it should be tightened up. A meaningful evaluation would look at the number and types of cases diverted, breakdown gender and racial demographics, and assess treatment programs and rate of recidivism among those who were diverted before making recommendations for changes.

But this thoughtful analysis has not happened. Instead, the Massachusetts Legislature is coming under great pressure to make immediate drastic and deep changes to the law based on a handful of extraordinary cases where the Valor Act was either wrongfully implemented or the judge made an unpopular decision.

Recent stories in the media have highlighted a handful of cases where Section 16 was invoked for crimes such as domestic violence or driving while intoxicated. The reporting casts doubt on the ties between the alleged acts and the veteran’s military service. The underlying premise is that we are allowing people who served in uniform to be above the same laws they were sworn to defend and protect.

These types of crimes are very serious and that the law should be assessed to ensure that we protect survivors and serve appropriate justice. But it is crucial to note that, in these extraordinary cases, diversion under the Valor Act was still subject to the discretion of the judge and a mental health assessment. Using cherry-picked, out of the ordinary cases to make drastic cuts to a program that has already served over 2,000 veterans seems reactionary at best.

Veterans are schooled in responsibility. No one argues that they should not be held accountable for their actions. Remember, however, America has let less than 1 percent of our fellow citizens shoulder an extraordinary burden for close to 18 years and still counting. Society needs to be held accountable for that as well.

To be fair, our lawmakers are not dragging their feet. In fact, members of the House and Senate are working with veterans service organizations and other advocates on recommended fixes. The debate has been lively and serious. They deserve credit for trying to do what is in the best interest of the public, while not gutting the provisions that make this law critical to helping those veterans for whom reintegration has been a challenge.

Meet the Author
Let’s hope the final solution is thoughtful and balanced, for the sake of those still struggling with unseen wounds and trauma incurred in service to our Commonwealth and nation.

Coleman Nee served as Massachusetts secretary of veterans services from 2010 to 2015.  He is a member of Disabled American Veterans’ National Executive Committee.