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Florida veterans court shares successes with lawyers, judges

JESSICA BIDWELL/STARS AND STRIPES

By SARA NEALEIGH | The Bradenton Herald (Tribune News Service) | Published: October 26, 2017

Over the clatter of forks and knifes on plates, members of Florida's Manatee County Bar Association heard the latest on a specialized docket in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court geared toward helping veterans navigate the criminal justice system during their luncheon meeting.

The docket allows judges to better understand the issues that a veteran may be struggling with when they return from duty such as substance addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and military sexual trauma.

Veteran defendants can also work with judges who are familiar with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and other organizations.

Some of the issues veterans face, Dennis Plews, a Sarasota attorney and U.S. Army veteran, said, are “more appropriately dealt with in treatment than incarceration.”

The 12th Judicial Circuit’s Veterans Treatment Courts began as a track in the drug court and was modeled after the drug court program, Alfred James, administrator of the Veterans Treatment Court program, said.

The program started in Manatee County in August 2015 and in Sarasota County in 2016.

The program accepts mostly veterans who have entered the criminal justice system with non-violent felony offenses and DUI charges and lasts between one and two years, James said. They even accept veterans who are not eligible for services in order to help as many people as they can.

Once they are accepted, veterans are assigned a mentor and get connected with Veterans Affairs and local organizations to help veterans.

Veterans are then able to get treatment and attend group sessions.

“Once you get them connected with a mentor they tend to do well,” James said.

There are 21 veterans in the program now, James said.

The Veterans Treatment Court has helped 40 veterans. Eleven have successfully graduated from the program, but there have been setbacks. Nineteen participants were discharged, or did not complete the program, a few transferred to other programs and James said a couple died before they could finish.

The feedback from the program, James said, has been good and helps them continue to grow and make the program better.

“They’re very grateful and they’ve helped us to actually develop the program into what it should be because they’ve been asking for services that fit them more than just a drug court model. We’ve had to make those changes and adapt,” James said.

The first Veterans Treatment Court was founded by in 2008 by Judge Robert Russell in Buffalo, N.Y. Russell started the program after noticing an increase in the number of veterans appearing on his drug court and mental health court dockets, according to the 12th Judicial Court’s website. The 12th Judicial Circuit’s Veterans Treatment Courts were developed with a similar philosophy, aiming to help veterans who are in the criminal justice system.

The program started in Florida after five lawyers, all veterans themselves, formed the board of Florida Veterans for Common Sense. They heard about Russell’s model in New York and were able to get the support needed, Plews, a founding member of the board, said.

“Without veterans, there wouldn’t be a United States,” Plews said.

Chief Judge Charles Williams encouraged the attorneys present Wednesday for the Manatee County Bar Association luncheon to volunteer their time with the program.

“While all of us may not have had the opportunity to serve our country in the same way as the veterans in this room, and the veterans who participate in this court program, volunteering your skills as a lawyer to help them now is an opportunity to do your part. And in comparison to their sacrifice, it is a very small price to pay,” Williams said.

During the lunch, several veterans in the audience stood to be recognized before the presentation.

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©2017 The Bradenton Herald (Bradenton, Fla.)
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