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Veterans court program to begin in a Pa. county

A program aimed at helping veterans who are charged with minor criminal offenses is under way in Fayette County.

The Veterans' Diversionary Program will initially be offered to eligible participants awaiting action on summary criminal charges, such as public drunkenness and harassment, at the office of Perry District Judge Richard Kasunic II, said Kate Vozar, director of the county's Problem-Solving Courts program.

It eventually will be offered at all seven district courts in the county, Vozar said.

Kasunic said the program was developed at the request of veterans groups that expressed a need for it. It will give troubled veterans an opportunity to get back on the right track, he said.

“They were asking for help for veterans who may be suffering from (post-traumatic stress disorder) or may have a traumatic brain injury,” Kasunic said. “Or they may just be having a hard time readjusting to civilian life.”

Kasunic said the voluntary program places eligible veterans into programs such as drug and alcohol treatment or behavioral health counseling. Charges are dismissed for those who successfully complete the six-month program.

John Lavery, a Vietnam veteran and adjutant for Hopwood Amvets Post 103, said the program will be helpful for veterans who may not realize they have PTSD or other service-related problems.

“It could be helpful for some people who have come back maladjusted, and they just went through life maladjusted,” Lavery said.

“What happens is, they wind up with a history of getting into trouble,” Lavery said. “They never get back to normal, and they don't recognize it as PTSD.”

Kasunic said veterans who are charged with summary offenses such as harassment, trespassing, disorderly conduct, public drunkenness, retail theft and criminal mischief can opt into the program.

Vozar said when underlying problems such as PTSD are treated, such people are less likely to commit other offenses.

“It's pretty common to see a person come through on a second or third harassment, so there is a high rate of recidivism, with the charges progressing,” Vozar said. “If we can treat the underlying issues, we are hoping to decrease the likelihood these individuals will get more serious charges.”

Vozar said a similar program in place at the Court of Common Pleas level has proven successful, with 10 veterans participating.

Vozar said all veterans are eligible for the program, whether they served on active duty or in the reserves and National Guard. Even those with dishonorable discharges can participate, she said, provided their criminal offense can be attributed to a military-related issue.

“We don't want to suggest that, if you are a veteran, you're eligible,” Vozar said. “We do have to find a link between the service-related issue and the charge.”

She said the courts work with the Department of Veterans Affairs to verify participants' eligibility for the program.

Liz Zemba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or lzemba@tribweb.com.

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©2014 Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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