Blair court to handle vets

Magisterial District Judge Fred B. Miller, who serves Northern Blair County, has become the local leader in an effort to divert military veterans from the criminal justice system into treatment programs, which he said will benefit both the veteran and the community.

Miller said there will be a meeting in Blair County, tentatively scheduled for Jan. 18, where local magisterial district judges, police chiefs and representatives of the court system will discuss the development of a diversionary program that will place criminal charges on hold while veterans receive treatment through the Van Zandt VA Medical Center in Altoona.

Criminal charges may be reduced or dismissed and fines and costs adjusted for veterans who successfully complete the treatment.

Blair County has implemented many specialty courts in the past decade, from adult and juvenile drug courts to a family drug court, a DUI court and a truancy program for juveniles.

Last year’s murder trial of Nicholas A. Horner of Altoona brought the court’s attention directly on problems suffered by veterans, not just because of what they saw and did in time of war, but also because of the difficulty they have in transitioning back to civilian life.

The idea of veterans courts are to address problems like post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, excessive alcohol and drug use, and domestic violence before they lead to serious crimes that end with long prison terms for veterans.

On Friday, Cambria County became one of 15 county courts in Pennsylvania to begin a veterans diversionary program at the Common Pleas Court level.

Miller has taken up the leadership in an entirely new effort, which is to address veterans’ issues at the magisterial district justice level. The local program will seek treatment for veterans charged with minor crimes such as public drunkenness, harassment or disorderly conduct.

MDJ veterans diversionary courts are under way on an experimental basis in Centre, Monroe and Westmoreland counties.

P. Karen Blackburn, who oversees problem-solving courts for the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts and who will attend the Jan. 18 meeting in Altoona, said the magisterial district judge program is the first of its kind in the nation.

She said the idea was being supported by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille and by Justice Seamus McCaffery, both veterans.

“This program has been under development for over three years and is another step in the work we have been doing here in the courts of Pennsylvania, in partnership with the Veterans Administration, to assist returning veterans with their struggles to readjust,” McCaffery said last week. “What we hope to do here is divert these veterans into treatment before their problems escalate to behaviors that would result in a case getting to the Court of Common Pleas.”

“In a lot of situations, men and women took the time to serve the country, serve us all, and things may have occurred and the transition has not been as easy as it could be,” Miller said in explaining why he became interested in developing a local program.

“My personal goal: We are looking at people who have honorably served their country. They have problems we can help with before it escalates,” Miller said.

He received permission from Blair County President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva to begin putting the project together.

He also has been in contact with Centre County officials who initiated a program there and with Bonnie Clark, an experienced therapist who is Van Zandt’s liaison with the criminal justice systems in the 14 counties covered by that hospital.

Andrea Young, a Van Zandt spokeswoman, said there are 87,000 veterans in those counties – about 10,000 in Blair alone – with 25,000 receiving services through Van Zandt.

Kopriva estimated that in Blair County, about 15 percent of those in the criminal justice system are veterans.

Veteran Courts work

Clark said one of the goals at Van Zandt is to keep veterans from becoming homeless, and addressing problems that land them in the justice system is one way to deal with that.

Her role in the diversionary program will be to assess whether veterans recommended for the program are eligible for services.

Clark said that Van Zandt, which will provide the treatment, offers many types of group and individual therapy that help veterans deal with PTSD, depression and recovery from drug and alcohol abuse.

She said that while the veterans’ efforts in this area are just beginning, the programs offered by the VA in Buffalo, N.Y., have been successful in addressing substance abuse, mental health care, housing assistance and employment problems.

Centre’s Assistant Court Administrator Barbara Gallo said the effort to put a program together in Centre County was led by Magisterial District Justice Leslie Dutchcot of State College.

“We are terribly excited about it. It’s an exciting program,” said Gallo.

Dutchcot said each magisterial district judge in the county will decide which cases will be referred for the diversionary program. The cases will be referred for review to Clark within days of charges being filed, and the veteran will be involved in the program within weeks. After two months in the program, the veteran will be brought back to court for status review. If he isn’t doing well, changes will be made in the program.

If he is doing well, he will complete the program – another four months – but will have services available if he needs more help beyond the end of the program.

“I can’t even describe how invested Bonnie [Clark] and everybody at the Veterans Administration is in this program,” Dutchcot said.

Miller is hoping the Blair County effort can get off the ground as early as this spring.

“If we as a court system can prevent a horrible situation from occurring down the road, then it is worth it,” he concluded.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.