- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 11, 2014

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - Posttraumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries could be used as a mitigating factor in the sentencing of combat veterans convicted of crimes under a bill considered Tuesday in the House Military and Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Les Gara, an Anchorage Democrat.

The measure would allow state judges to take PTSD and traumatic brain injuries into account as a possibility for reduced sentences. Sentencing reductions would be on condition of counseling.

House Bill 313 states that the condition would have to be combat-related. The burden of proof in having the condition would be on the offender.

“We just heard this last year that more and more people are returning from Afghanistan and overseas and are getting into trouble through the use of alcohol and drugs because they suffer from this disorder,” Gara said.

The bill mirrors the statute concerning fetal alcohol syndrome and cannot be used as a mitigating factor for crimes involving serious injury, sexual assault, or unlawful death.

“Jail has been found to aggravate PTSD,” Anchorage attorney Brant McGee told the committee. McGee, a combat veteran himself, said veterans sometimes return to society afraid of people, places and situations and often find relief through alcohol and drugs.

“Why would this bill not take in other categories such as policemen and fire men?” asked Rep. Pete Higgins, R-Fairbanks.

Rep. Shelly Hughes, R-Palmer, responded saying combat stress was more frequent and of a longer duration than what first responders, police and fire personnel encounter.

Anchorage attorney Cindy Strout said she is finding more returning veterans getting into trouble with the criminal justice system.

“Young men are having contact with the criminal justice system because of substance abuse brought on by these conditions,” Strout said.

Ric Davidge, chairman of the Alaska Veterans Foundation, said one problem is the warrior mentality veterans go through in training not allowing the admission that there is a personal problem.

“What is appropriate behavior in combat is not appropriate behavior in a civil society,” said Davidge. He noted that certain items such as stress, loud noises, sound and even smells can trigger a posttraumatic experience for a veteran.

If passed, Alaska would become the first state allowing PTSD and traumatic brain injuries to be taken into account as a mitigating factor.

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