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California Bill Considers PTSD in Veterans' Criminal Sentencing

A California bill is gradually moving through the Legislature. The bill, AB2098, recently passed the Assembly on a 70 to 1 vote. The proposed legislation requires that judges consider post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other serious mental health issues resulting from military service as a mitigating factor in imposing sentence.

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder may occur after a person has been through a very traumatic experience. Different people are affected in different ways by different events and types of events. Although PTSD can be triggered by many different kinds of traumatic experience, there are many reports of individuals suffering PTSD after experiencing:

  • Military combat
  • Physical abuse, including child abuse
  • Terrorist attack
  • Sexual assault
  • Accident, including serious motor vehicle collisions
  • Natural disaster, including flood, hurricane, tornado, fire or earthquake

A person who suffers from PTSD may feel as if he or she has lost control over their current situation. PTSD is very different that the feelings of stress we all feel after a difficult event.

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

There are four main symptoms associated with the disorder. The most common is reliving the event. This might be in the form of nightmares, memories or flashbacks.

Another symptom is avoiding scenarios that remind the person of the event. For example, a veteran might avoid viewing fireworks on the Fourth of July because the environment can precipitate memories of traumatic combat. This type of trigger could encourage the desire to fight. If a trigger results, one might inadvertently or unintentionally harm someone, leading to a domestic violence charge or something similar.

A sufferer may experience negative changes in feelings or beliefs. For example, someone may feel somewhat apathetic, and this apathy could lead one to dislike activities he or she once enjoyed.

Another common symptom is overstimulation. This is known as hyperarousal, which may make it difficult for one to sleep or relax. A person may always feel the need to be alert, for example.

Ultimately, the symptoms associated with PTSD often result in mental and physical challenges. A person suffering from the disease often struggles to return to "normalcy." The struggles, in turn, may lead a person to engage in adverse actions, including criminal activity. As a result, the pending bill aims to achieve a more rehabilitative approach to criminal punishment — something that can help sufferers.

As California’s law currently stands, judges are required to consider ordering mental health treatment when granting probation for veterans suffering from a mental illness. The recent proposal is just one of many that concern veterans in the criminal justice system. If you are a veteran who is dealing with criminal charges, speak to a lawyer about your options. As the law continues to evolve, you will need a defense team that is up-to-date with such changes.