The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

November 11, 2013

Offenders who are veterans offered chance at treatment


MERCER COUNTY — President Judge Thomas R. Dobson has announced that Mercer County is creating a Veterans Court to assist military veterans.

The first veterans court opened in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008 and similar programs have been growing throughout the nation.

With nearly 1 million veterans, Pennsylvania has the fifth-largest veteran population in the country. Pennsylvania’s first veterans courts opened in Allegheny and Lackawanna counties in 2009. Since 2010, 16 more have been established in Beaver, Berks, Butler, Cambria, Chester, Dauphin, Delaware, Fayette, Lancaster, Luzerne, Montgomery, Northumberland, Philadelphia, Washington, York and now in Mercer County, bringing the total statewide to 18.

The Mercer County Veterans Court provides veterans the opportunity to pursue appropriate treatment while addressing their legal problems. It will be open to any current or former member of any branch of the armed services, including the Reserves and National Guard. After criminal charges or probation or parole violations have been filed, the case may be referred to the Veterans Court for consideration. All violations are eligible for the program, except homicide and many sex-related offenses.

Participation in Veterans Court is voluntary. Veterans wishing to participate must be evaluated by the Veterans Administration in Butler to determine if they are appropriate candidates.

The decision to permit a veteran to participate is made by a Veterans Court team, composed of a judge, the district attorney, the public defender, a state probation and parole agent, the Veterans Justice Outreach coordinator and a treatment specialist from the VA Butler Healthcare, a Veterans Court coordinator who serves as the administrator, and the county director of Veterans Affairs.

Once accepted into the program, the participnt is assigned a mentor, who is a veteran or an active or reserve duty member of the Armed Services. Mentors are volunteers who offer the veteran advice, personal experiences, recommendations, and guidance. Mentors discuss any ongoing problems with the participant, work to solve those issues, and bring to the court any issues that it can assist in resolving. This relationship fosters a positive attitude in the participant, motivates him or her to accomplish treatment goals, and assures the participant of a support system.

The program is an intensive therapy regimen. Veterans are expected to become involved in and complete numerous activities based on their individualized treatment plan. Typically, that may include Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings or approved alternatives, group and individual therapy, medication, psychiatric and counseling appointments, regular appointments with a Veterans Justice Outreach Coordinator, biweekly court appearances, community service, probation appointments, and random drug and alcohol screening.

Participants who violate the rules or fail to achieve their goals may receive sanctions, such as loss of privileges, incarceration, or expulsion from the program. Veterans expelled from the tprogram will be referred back to the original presiding common pleas court judge.

District Attorney Robert G. Kochems noted his office supports the treatment program. “These veterans have served our country, and we now have the opportunity and the duty to be of service to them,” he said.