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Duquesne University law clinic provides legal aid to veterans

PITTSBURGH — With the opening of the new Tribone Center building for its clinical legal education program, Duquesne University's Law School aims to provide easier access and expanded services to people who need, but can't afford, legal representation.

In addition to offering legal assistance for low-income families and nonprofit organizations, the center is home to one of the only clinics in the country focused on veterans' criminal cases, according to Laurie Serafino, director of clinical legal education and an associate law professor at Duquesne.

The Veterans' Clinic provides assistance to veterans charged with misdemeanors and felonies who have been accepted into Allegheny County Veterans Court, one of the county's specialty courts. Veterans' Court helps veterans charged with crimes — and who also have addiction problems or mental illnesses — to set up specialized treatment and probation programs.

Duquesne's law students represent and work with the veterans in the program, communicating with clients in person and via telephone, and eligible students appear with clients in court.

"These veterans need a lot of support, and they get much better results with this program than if we just stick them in the criminal justice system," Ms. Serafino said.

She said in the clinic's first year in 2012 there were veterans attending Duquesne Law School who worked in the clinic and have returned as student managers to help other students. "They've been a big part of this clinic's success."

According to 2010 Census data, the most recent figures available, Pennsylvania has the fifth-largest population of veterans in the country, making the state and Allegheny County a natural fit for special veterans' programs. Veterans' Court was launched in 2009, and is modeled on drug and mental health treatment courts, which have been shown to lower recidivism rates and help clear case backlogs.

The overwhelming majority of veterans in the Veterans' Court program suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which often leads to drug and alcohol problems, as well as other related issues, including violence.

Veterans are ideal candidates for the kind of rehabilitation that the court program offers, said Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge John Zottola, who is director of the Veterans' Court.

Due to their military training, "they are very task-completion oriented, very motivated," he said. Participants receive a "challenge coin" upon completion of the program, similar to the challenge coins military personnel receive for recognition of a special achievement, Mr. Zottola said.

Law enforcement officers in particular, Mr. Zottola said, recommend many veterans charged with crimes for referral to the program, because they see the potential for a positive outcome, and many have military backgrounds themselves.

Law students work with the Veterans' Clinic for a full year and get rigorous coursework in criminal procedure, probation and parole and ethics issues.

Ms. Serafino said even though it can be difficult work, the students who participate find it rewarding.

The clinic has given both students and veterans overwhelmingly positive results, she added.

"We have something like a 98 percent success rate," she said. "We have almost no recidivism. At the end of the program, veterans who go through it have really been through a process of renewal."

klyons@post-gazette.com

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