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New Florida Law Allows More Vets To Receive Treatment Instead Of Jail

Justin Heath (left) and Marcus Lynch (right) chat after a support group meeting for addicts in recovery.
Ashton Elder
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

A new Florida law allows more military vets to qualify for a diversion program meant to keep offenders out of prison. 

One Jacksonville army veteran said this program saved his life.

Army veteran Justin Heath sat outside Jacksonville’s River Region treatment facility after a support-group meeting. He said veterans court has been a major part of his recovery.  It offers treatment to minor offenders who are also veterans struggling with addiction .

“Drug court was kind of no brainer for me and honestly it saved my life. I had a couple mishaps but those are to be expected, and that’s one thing drug court really helps you with,” he said.

Like many veterans, Health found himself turning to drugs and alcohol to cope with war trauma.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, roughly two out of 10 veterans who have Post Traumatic Stress Disorderalso have Substance Use Disorder. They also find war veterans who struggle with PTSD also tend to binge drink. According to the VA, binge drinking among veterans is related to combat trauma. 

Heath watched a friend struggle with PTSD and addiction which led to trouble with the law.

“His whole reason for turning to his drug of choice is because he didn’t want to sleep at night; he was taking whatever he could to stay awake because of the PTSD; the things that he witnessed in combat," he said. "Veterans treatment court really helps … and they understand that."

A new law has changed aspects of the Jacksonville criminal code that deal with mental health and substance abuse. The veterans drug court program was only offered to honorably discharged veterans before 2015. Now Veterans who have not yet been discharged from service and those who left the military with a general discharge qualify for the program. 

State Rep. CharlesMcBurney (R-Jacksonville) said he was happy more veterans will be able to receive these benefits.

"Some of these veterans had gotten into trouble before they were discharged, but they still needed the help,” he told WJCT last year.

Veterans court eligibility is just a small part of the lawMcBurneyshepherded through the Legislature. Overall, it’s aimed at expanding treatment-based mental-health and substance-abuse diversion programs both for pre-trial intervention and for after sentencing.

Copyright 2020 WJCT News 89.9. To see more, visit WJCT News 89.9.

Ashton Elder is a senior at the University of North Florida and was features editor at the UNF Spinnaker. During her time there, she was part of an editing team that won Spinnaker national recognition at a college media conference.