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Legislature Approves Study of Special Courts for Vets

Tennessee veterans suffering post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological problems stemming from military service could soon have their own special courts should they find themselves facing prosecution in the state’s criminal justice system.

The House unanimously passed a bill today, HB3394/SB3222, which directs the Administrative Office of the Courts to study whether it’s feasible for the state to establish specialized courts for veterans. The bill also passed the Senate unanimously on April 12.

Such courts have been established in states around the country, including Oklahoma, New York and California. They are aimed at getting treatment for veterans who commit offenses and helping them adjust to to post-battlefield life.

Passage of the bill in Tennessee is the first step in a two-step process, said Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, the sponsor in the House. Once the study is complete, Ragan said he plans to draft legislation based on the results.

Ragan said Wednesday on the House floor one of the “obvious reasons” he is sponsoring the bill is the announced “drawdown” of U.S. troops serving overseas, which will “bring a large number of veterans back to our state.”

“In some cases they’re going to be suffering from a number of maladies, not the least of which is post-traumatic stress syndrome, and traumatic brain injuries,” said Ragan. “We need to prepare our court systems to deal with them fairly, and to be able to refer them to the proper treatment locations in lieu of putting them in jail.”

The bill also gives Tennessee the opportunity to create a “customized” solution for taking care of struggling veterans that will attract more federal funding through the Department of Veterans Affairs, Ragan said.

“The purpose of the bill, and the study that’s going forward, is to provide some training to the judicial system personnel, judges, and other personnel to be able to help these veterans as they come into the system,” Ragan said. He added that there was a single court in the state that receives help from a representative of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and that it has been successful for that court.

“We want to spread those benefits throughout the state, and that will continue,” said Ragan, a retired Air Force pilot.

Ragan’s measure drew support across partisan lines.

There aren’t many locations for PTSD evaluation and treatment for veterans in Tennessee, said Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, He expressed hope the study would provide for more locations.

Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, spoke in support of the measure for similar reasons.

“I would hope, if, for whatever reason, they find a new court system is not feasible, that they can change the procedure and the law to give this benefit to those who are laboring under these particular conditions that are part of our veterans,” Fitzhugh said.

Several meetings have been scheduled over the summer as part of the study, with an interim report scheduled for August and a final report scheduled in December, Ragan said.

“When we come back next session, we can address this issue in a more complete and, shall we say, comprehensive way,” Ragan said.

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