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Pennsylvania veterans treatment court offers outreach, counseling

By RICK DANDES | The (Sunbury, Pa.) Daily Item | Published: January 20, 2019

SUNBURY, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — Every other Tuesday morning, Judge Charles Saylor meets with a panel of experts and officials to review the progress of military veterans in the treatment court program.

The treatment court is for veterans convicted mostly of nonviolent misdemeanors, and some felonies, Saylor said. If they get into the program, they can avoid jail time and can have their misdemeanors expunged from their records. Felonies sometimes can be reduced to misdemeanors.

The program pairs each participant with one of five other veterans called mentors. They aren’t there to be counselors, but rather to help keep them on course.

During the hourlong, closed-door, update meeting, Saylor leads a discussion about participants’ progress or lack thereof. The Daily Item was granted access to the Jan. 15 meeting, in which one veteran’s case was discussed. After the meeting, Saylor brought the veteran into the courtroom and directly discussed his situation.

The veterans-treatment-court model, similar to that of the drug-treatment court, requires regular court appearances, mandatory attendance at treatment sessions, constant contact with parole officers and frequent, random testing for drug and alcohol use.

Statewide, veterans treatment courts have been “very” effective, according to Kim Sapolis-Lacey, a justice outreach coordinator. A federal employee of the Veteran’s Administration, he is the link between the court and the services offered by the VA, overseeing seven treatment courts in 19 counties.

The latest statistics show a 77 percent success rate; that is, 77 percent of those people in the veterans-treatment-court program go through it successfully, Sapolis-Lacey said.

Northumberland County started its veterans treatment court in 2011. Since then, Sapolis-Lacey said, 27 people have been in the program. Only two have not completed it.

The program isn’t easy, Saylor said. “For those who think veterans treatment court is a slap on the wrist, let me tell you, it’s not the easy way out; it’s very intense.”

Through court officials, The Daily Item reached out to veterans and graduates. They all declined comment for this story.

- Only local court

Northumberland runs the only veterans court in the Valley.

“There are treatment courts involved with a drug court and DUI in a lot of counties, but this is the only veterans court in north-central Pennsylvania,” Saylor said.

It was Saylor’s idea to start a veterans court. “I thought there was a need because Northumberland County has a relatively high percentage of veterans.”

The five counties with the highest proportions of veterans are Somerset (8.2 percent), Clearfield (8 percent), Carbon (7.8 percent), Adams (7.6 percent), and Northumberland (6.9 percent), according to the latest Census data. In Northumberland, the data show 7,487 residents who are veterans.

Saylor knew that at times, individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder-related issues get involved in alcohol or drug abuse. “That results in them coming before the court and into the justice system,” Saylor said.

Veterans treatment court is sort of a recognition that veterans have done much for our country, Saylor said. “We owe them an opportunity to, instead of going the traditional route through the court system, that they can apply to come into our veteran’s treatment court. We link them up with whatever services they are going to need to address their particular problem, and thereby can avoid more serious sanctions such as jail time, if they successfully complete the program.”

- Mentors key

Saylor said the mentors — volunteers from the community with who have military backgrounds — play a critical role in successful completion of the program.

“We have had a core group of volunteers that have been with the program for the entire seven years,” Saylor said. “The mentor is somebody they can be in touch with … that they can relate to with their experience, and why they are in this situation they are in, and get help, whether it is at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, or driving them to Lebanon for services at the VA center.”

Some services are in Lebanon, others in Wilkes-Barre. There are some programs in Williamsport.

Saylor noted Northumberland County’s successes with a low recidivism rate and a good success rate, dating back to the first class.

“In our first class, we had five and they all graduated. The idea is that they don’t come back into the system. I don’t think there have been any foul-ups with that original five,” Saylor said.

- Some drop out

Participants are given multiple chances and treatment team meetings to get on and stay on the correct path, but some participants fail.

“I think part of the reason is the difficulty of the program,” Lacey said. “Then there is the very nature of addiction. And finally, some people just aren’t willing to surrender to the idea that they have to be told what to do. They oftentimes become their own barrier. Different stressors happen.”

Lacey said some vets leave the treatment court and return after realizing that their way isn’t working.

Northumberland County District Attorney Tony Matulewicz echoed Lacey’s and Saylor’s sentiments that the program is intense.

“Participants have to be in court very often in front of the judge,” Matulewicz said. “They are required to be in constant communication with their probation officer; and there is a component of supervision by probation, a component of treatment that is done by professionals, and must be complete, and there is supervision done by the court.”

Saylor gets to see the people in the program, sometimes weekly, every other week, or once per month.

“They are under much more strict supervision than regular probation,” Matulewicz said. “That is why some people don’t want to apply for treatment court.”

Everybody wants to avoid jail, or to get out of jail if they are already in, he said.

The program is very participant specific. “Basically, it is a 12-month program,” Lacey said, “that is, if they do everything well.”

By comparison, drug court programs are two years.

“It all depends on the individual,” said Mike Balducci, who coordinates the mentor program. “Folks have problems. If they don’t go to their treatment, the judge will give them another four weeks. Some don’t advance as quickly.”

- Meeting benchmarks

There are phases, different benchmarks, and the person has to progress from one phase to another until they graduate.

“I don’t know of anyone who sailed through so smoothly that they completely checked every box right through to the end,” Matulewicz said. “There is always some kind of snag.”

Matulewicz rattled off a full list of potential problems, ranging from missing meetings for AA or Narcotics Anonymous, to taking regular drug tests, to having families and jobs that allow them to attend their court sessions between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.

“Employers would have to know the situation because they would have to allow work around these benchmarks. Because for the participant, all this has to come first,” Matulewicz said. “That’s not easy for some employers to take.”

He said that because they are still serving their sentences and have criminal records, some employers might not want to hire them, especially with active involvement with the court system.

“The veteran has to completely buy into this to be successful,” Matulewicz said. “Because it becomes part of their life for a year. An integral part of their life. That’s why I say this is no easy way out of going to jail.”

The old way of thinking in criminal justice, Matulewicz said, is that by throwing somebody into jail, they will learn their lesson.

It is not like that when you have underlying mental health problems, serious addictions or PTSD.

“Now, the courts, government, prosecutors, have seen that there is a more effective way to handle this,” he said.

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