Pa. courts can help vet­er­ans

The Hamburg Area Item - - Opinion - By Jus­tice De­bra Todd Guest Colum­nist

As Amer­i­cans, we owe a debt of grat­i­tude to our mil­i­tary vet­er­ans. The Supreme Court of Penn­syl­va­nia is com­mit­ted to do­ing ev­ery­thing we can to sup­port the men and women who have served our coun­try as they tran­si­tion back to civil­ian life.

Many vet­er­ans strug­gle with this read­just­ment. Penn­syl­va­nia has the fourth high­est pop­u­la­tion of vet­er­ans in this coun­try, one mil­lion men and women, and their strug­gles af­fect all of our com­mu­ni­ties. Some vet­er­ans re­turn home from ser­vice with in­vis­i­ble wounds, in­hibit­ing their suc­cess­ful in­te­gra­tion into their com­mu­ni­ties.

It is es­ti­mated that, of the more than 2.7 mil­lion vet­er­ans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 20 per­cent suf­fer from post- trau­matic stress dis­or­der ( PTSD) or ma­jor de­pres­sion. Yet, only half of th­ese vet­er­ans seek treat­ment. Oth­ers re­sort to self- med­i­ca­tion with drugs and al­co­hol, which of­ten leads to their in­volve­ment with the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem.

One- third of Amer­ica’s home­less are vet­er­ans. On any given night, 40,000 vet­er­ans are on the streets. The ma­jor­ity suf­fer from sub­stance abuse, men­tal ill­ness, or re­lated dis­or­ders. Vet­er­ans who are home­less have a higher preva­lence of crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem- in­volve­ment.

Sadly, 22 vet­er­ans com­mit sui­cide ev­ery day in the United States.

In 2008, Judge Robert Rus­sell of Buf­falo, New York cre­ated the na­tion’s first Vet­er­ans Court. There are now over 300 Vet­er­ans Courts in the United States, serv­ing more than 13,000 vet­er­ans.

In Vet­er­ans Courts, el­i­gi­ble vet­eran de­fen­dants with sub­stance de­pen­dency and/ or men­tal ill­ness are placed on a spe­cial­ized crim­i­nal docket. After ini­tial screen­ing and as­sess­ment, th­ese vet­er­ans are of­fered an op­por­tu­nity to par­tic­i­pate in this vol­un­tary pro­gram, which in­volves ju­di­cially su­per­vised com­pli­ance with a treat­ment plan de­vel­oped by vet­eran health care pro­fes­sion­als.

Vet­er­ans Courts em­pha­size a team- fo­cused ap­proach. Th­ese teams typ­i­cally in­clude a Dis­trict At­tor­ney, a Pub­lic De­fender, a Pro­ba­tion Of­fi­cer, and the VA, as well as Men­tor Co­or­di­na­tors. Men­tors are vet­er­ans who vol­un­teer their time to sup­port their fel­low vet­er­ans as they nav­i­gate the court, treat­ment, and VA sys­tems.

The Men­tor com­po­nent is one of the key in­gre­di­ents to the suc­cess of our Vet­er­ans Courts. More vol­un­teer men­tors are needed in all of our Vet­er­ans Courts.

As vet­eran de­fen­dants progress through the pro­gram, com­pli­ance is mon­i­tored through reg­u­larly sched­uled court hear­ings, dur­ing which par­tic­i­pants may be sanc­tioned for non- com­pli­ance and re­warded for a job well done. At grad­u­a­tion, suc­cess­ful par­tic­i­pants have be­come sta­ble, em­ployed and sub­stance free, and con­tinue to re­ceive men­tal health care and coun­sel­ing, as needed. Suc­cess­ful Vet­er­ans Courts boast a sig­nif­i­cantly re­duced re­cidi­vism rate, 5- 10 per­cent, and save count­less tax dol­lars by keep­ing our vet­er­ans out of prison. Vet­er­ans Courts truly help our vet­er­ans find their way back home.

In 2009, Penn­syl­va­nia’s first Vet­er­ans Court was es­tab­lished in Lack­awanna County by Judge Michael Bar­rasse. We now have 20 Vet­er­ans Courts, with more in for­ma­tion, and 14 coun­ties pro­vid­ing Mag­is­te­rial Dis­trict Court Diver­sion­ary pro­grams for vet­er­ans. There are presently over 450 Penn­syl­va­nia vet­er­ans par­tic­i­pat­ing in th­ese pro­grams.

There is noth­ing more grat­i­fy­ing than at­tend­ing a Vet­er­ans Court grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony and see­ing the trans­for­ma­tion the pro­gram has in­spired in a vet­eran’s life. I have seen the ar­rest­ing po­lice of­fi­cer at­tend to con­grat­u­late the vet on get­ting his life back on track. Be­lieve me, there is not a dry eye in the court­room.

I can­not be­gin to know ev­ery­thing th­ese vet­er­ans and their fam­i­lies have been through. But, I do know that they have served our coun­try hon­or­ably; they have en­coun­tered tremen­dous dif­fi­cul­ties; and they have over­come tough chal­lenges. The fact that they have suc­cess­fully com­pleted the Vet­er­ans Court pro­gram speaks vol­umes.

Au­thor J. K. Rowl­ing said, “Rock bot­tom be­came the solid foun­da­tion on which I re­built my life.”

I be­lieve it is never too late to re­build a life. To all of our Penn­syl­va­nia Vet­er­ans, thank you for your ser­vice. Jus­tice De­bra Todd has served on the Supreme Court of Penn­syl­va­nia since 2008.

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