MERCER COUNTY —
In a move Mercer County Senior Judge John C. Reed thinks is both cost effective for the county and a vast improvement to the way veterans troubled with mental health issues are treated by the legal system, he and newly elected Judge Daniel P. Wallace and Director of Veterans Affairs Larry Scheetz have started the ball rolling on a court dedicated solely to veterans.
The veterans court program isn’t meant as an easy out for service members who have committed crimes, but rather as an intensive treatment and supervision program that capitalizes on training and values that veterans already have.
Wallace said he strongly believes in the specialized court and was happy to take on the program as part of his new duties on the bench.
“I think veterans should receive special treatment by the courts, after having put their lives on the line for their country,” said Wallace, a U.S. Army combat veteran.
Scheetz said he’s long been a fan of veterans courts, particularly because they provide an opportunity to “restore” veterans to the way they were when they were successful in the military.
“We want to bring them back to those original values of integrity, loyalty and respect. With this court, we’re likely to be harder critics than anybody on them,” he said.
Reed said he thinks veterans who “run afoul of the law” are often self-medicating their mental health problems of post traumatic stress disorder or depression with drugs and alcohol and that leads to an inability to get along with others, hold down jobs, maintain relationships or stay productive members of society. “Then, in order to raise funds to support their need, they resort to theft-related offenses, burglarizing homes, shoplifting at Walmart,” he said.
He said that overall, when he served as a full-time judge, he was “shocked” at the extent that substance abuse was a factor in crimes. After doing some research on the problem, Reed said he generally saw two types of people: recreational drug users and those physically and psychologically addicted to drugs.
“For the recreational user, a slap upside the head was sufficient. They weren’t the problem, they learned their lesson and we usually never saw them again,” he said.
For the chronic users who were in the court system again and again – for assault charges, drug offenses, drunken driving – judges had but one treatment option, he said. “We would have them evaluated by the Behavioral Health Commission and sentence them to among other things, to comply with the treatment recommendation of that evaluation.”
But the problem, he said, is that it wasn’t very successful. Somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of the offenders failed.
“Obviously this was a waste of money and resources and was not unique to Mercer County or Pennsylvania. It was occurring throughout the nation. We judges had no solution, except to remove the individual from society by a long jail term of at least a year or more in a state prison. And the result of that was that our jails and prisons began bursting at the seams,” Reed said.
But about 10 years ago, Pennsylvania mirrored a program developed in Virginia, one that provides a longer, more intensive and more supervised sentence. Shortly after, Reed said, the program was working twice as well as the original plan and fewer offenders were relapsing.
“Between October 2010 and September 2012 Mercer County sentenced 54 percent of eligible offenders to this State Intermediate Program. In the nine years that I had been sentencing offenders, I only had one person reoffend within 12 months,” Reed said.
An Army veteran himself, Reed said he took a look at the popular idea of veterans courts in other counties and felt the need to set up something similar locally. Pennsylvania has the fifth-largest veterans population in the country, he said, with 1 million vets in the commonwealth.
Scheetz said to the best of his knowledge, there are 10,643 veterans in Mercer County. “But there may be more. That might not be a completely accurate figure because there could be more that I simply haven’t had contact with or aren’t registered.”
Veterans are a special group, in that they have a sense of camaraderie with other veterans, a bond, Reed said, that is “indescribable.”
By capitalizing on that bond, the offender will be assigned a mentor, another veteran acting in a role similar to a sponsor in an Alcoholic Anonymous program. Volunteer mentors who are either active duty or discharged can provide advice, share experiences and make recommendations.
“This relationship fosters a ‘can-do’ attitude in participating veterans, motivates him to complete the treatment goals and assures them they are not alone,” Reed said.
Volunteer mentors are needed, Reed said, and the requirements are that they are a veteran and are willing to complete a 90-minute online training program.
The program is an intensive two-year therapy regimen, he said. Veterans are expected to become involved in and complete numerous pro-social, treatment-oriented activities based on their individualized treatment plan.
It will also involve mentor meetings, participation in Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, group and individual therapies, medication management, psychiatric and counseling appointments, court appearances in front of Wallace, community service and drug screening, Reed said.
If the veteran completes the terms, remains compliant and has no relapses, the district attorney can recommend the charges be reduced or dismissed, Reed said.
While participation in the veterans court program is voluntary, eligibility is based on an honorable or general discharge and the charges cannot be homicide or many sex-related offenses, Reed said.
The cost-savings piece, Reed told the county commissioners Wednesday, is that because the offenders with those types of discharges qualify for veterans benefits, Veterans Affairs will cover the expenses of treatment and medication. Offenders will be seen and treated at the Butler VA Medical Center or the VA hospital in Pittsburgh, rather than being involved in local programs at the county’s expense.
The Butler hospital has already recommended 13 offenders who would likely be candidates for the court, Reed said.
Vets Court office could use a few new things
The Mercer County Veterans Court office will be across the street from the courthouse, at 138 S. Diamond St. in Mercer, in the former Veterans Coalition building, which, Mercer County Senior Judge John C. Reed said, is not in perfect shape, but open to the public.
Furnished at no cost to county taxpayers, except for the utilities, the space boasts used surplus furniture, most of which is broken but functional, a used “retired” desktop computer with the letters “E” and “N” worn off the keyboard, operating with Word 2003 and Outlook 2003, and a new telephone.
There’s no hot water because there is no hot water tank. There are two bathrooms on the second floor, but the toilet leaks. There’s no cleaning staff so the court team cleans the offices and restrooms themselves, Reed said.
Director of Veterans Affairs Larry Scheetz said the office is decorated with military memorabilia to establish a sense of the office as being “headquarters” for veterans. “A place they can respect and associate to,” he said.
“But despite these shortcomings, we are grateful for having the use of this building and the county’s generosity. We are not complaining,” Reed said.
Reed said he still has some needs and is hoping someone can help. Those include:
• A laptop computer that can be carried between the courthouse and the veterans court offices.
• An Excel or Access computer program to maintain records of participating veterans.
• An all-in-one copier, printer, scanner and fax machine.
• Office chairs.
Anyone who is willing to help with those items can contact Reed at 724-662-3800, ext. 2157.
Commissioner Chairman John Lechner said “a hot water tank is coming, Judge.”