Veterans court program begins in Pa. county
The (Connellsville, Pa.) Daily Courier
Often veterans with three or more tours come home and go back to civilian life when, just three days before, they were in combat. Then they drive down the road and become involved in road rage incidents.
In many counties across the nation, those veterans are identified and assigned to a “veterans court” where they can begin to receive treatment for stress, depression and other problems. If their offense does not rise to a severe level, they may get their sentence reduced by the time they spend in treatment and may even have their records expunged.
The veterans court program is now available in Fayette County, and the first veteran was referred on Tuesday.
Officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs, the judicial system, and state and federal legislators met at the AMVETS Post 103 in Hopwood to tell county veterans about the new program and how they can be involved to help fellow veterans who may be facing legal problems.
Kate McCombie, Fayette County Treatment Court coordinator, said the process of beginning treatment begins with identifying the veteran with the problem. Once the veteran is identified, Keather Likins, master social worker with the Veterans Administration in Pittsburgh, determines the eligibility of the individual for the program.
“The process really starts with you or with anybody (any veteran) who needs our help,” McCombie said.
A panel, which includes McCombie, Likins, Madonna M. Nicklow, director of the Office of Veterans Affairs of Fayette County, and others, reviews the case and comes up “with a very individualized treatment plan.”
The veteran may be homeless or need financial assistance, help in finding a job, help in dealing with mental health issues, help with a drug dependence or any other underlying problems the veteran might have, according to McCombie.
The veteran must be a resident of Fayette County, be a nonviolent offender, be 18 or older, have served in the Armed Forces and have a limited prior criminal record to be eligible.
Likins said the program has been in existence in Allegheny County since 2009. The program began as President Obama and the secretary of the VA, Eric Shinseki, developed a program to end homelessness among veterans. It was found that one barrier that left many veterans homeless was their involvement in the criminal justice system.
One problem was that just asking if a person is a veteran does not always identify them as someone falling under the program since many who served in the Reserves or National Guard don't consider themselves to be veterans.
“We have to identify the actual veteran and what charges and if they work,” Likins said.
He emphasized that any veteran who has had criminal involvement should be referred to the program. If a veteran is taken into the program, then the VA can offer help that usually keeps the veteran from becoming a repeat offender.
District Judge Randy Abraham, who serves the Masontown and Fairchance areas, said he was one who never thought to ask offenders coming before him if they are veterans. One point brought up was how aware the county's attorneys and public defenders are of the need to ask defendants about their military service.
John Wagner, president judge of the Fayette County Court of Common Pleas, said a veteran can be identified anywhere along the line in the court system so that treatment may be started to address the special needs the case may be diverted to the veterans court.
“We're doing a lousy job of identifying the veteran,” Wagner said. “So the first thing we need to do is to educate the lawyers to ask the right questions.”
He said the problem is to get the lawyers to slow down and identify who they're working with “and recognize there may be an opportunity to handle this person a little bit differently, instead of just cramming the case through.”
“Treatment is the goal,” Wagner said, adding that treating the veteran for the underlying problem may prevent him or her from becoming a repeat offender.
It was emphasized that any veteran who needs help with a legal problem can contact a local veterans organization, the county Office of Veterans Affairs, the Fayette County Treatment Court or the Veterans Administration in Pittsburgh to seek help.