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Photo by Matthew Peoples | flickr creative commons

Veterans and youth in the justice system have something in common — trauma.

By the time youth first enter the justice system, the vast majority of them have witnessed and/​or have been victim to some type of violence and are struggling to cope with the fallout of those experiences.

While California has implemented reforms to address veterans’ service-related trauma, which can lead to substance abuse and crime, these same solutions have not yet been thoroughly applied to young people. 

With growing evidence that youth with histories of violence-exposure and trauma are more likely to become involved with the justice system, California must work to address the underlying causes of youth crime, as the adult system already does with veterans who commit crime.

Exposure to community violence is especially prevalent in impoverished, urban areas, such as Oakland, where children do not so much have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder — but rather, experience continual traumatic violence.

Research on juvenile lifers” indicates that almost 80 percent of adolescents sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP) witnessed violence in their homes during childhood. Another study found that 80 percent of girls and almost half of all youth who are serving LWOP sentences have been physically abused.

As of October 2014, 19 California counties had at least one veterans court. Like most veterans courts in the U.S., California veterans courts have demonstrated success in their rehabilitative outcomes. For example, only six of 53 veterans (approximately 11 percent) who graduated from the Orange County veterans court — established in 2008 — had been re-arrested as of 2013. Moreover, the success of the Orange County veterans court has resulted in significant monetary savings for the county.

San Francisco’s veterans court, established in 2013, works closely with community organizations to ensure that veterans receive the treatment and services that they need to avoid reoffending. Its main objectives are to provide substance abuse and mental health treatment, as well as academic, vocational, or skills improvement leading to job placement and retention.” Such an approach recognizes the importance of integrating localized systems of support in preventing recidivism and improving public safety — and is a strategy that should be logically applied to youth as well.

In addition to the evident benefits of treating justice-involved veterans rather than incarcerating them, research has consistently shown that youth exposed to trauma and violence have better rehabilitative outcomes when they are also diverted to treatment. Regardless of mental health status or trauma-exposure, youth, overall, are more likely to recidivate if released from a state institution than comparable youth who remain under local supervision.

While the veterans court model is not perfect — there are often too many eligibility restrictions —its focus on treatment rather than confinement has proven to be effective. Rather than defaulting to incarceration, California’s juvenile courts should adopt an approach similar to veterans courts in its handling of all young people who walk through the door, as chances are, that each one of them has been exposed to traumatic violence, even if it was not experienced in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Vietnam.