Vets court receives support

VA offers guidance to counties that choose to create specialty court

Ethical considerations prevent the Department of Veterans Affairs from trying to persuade county governments to set up special courts for people who have served in the military — courts designed to help veterans cope with legal troubles, often related to combat trauma, without resorting to imprisonment.

But nothing prohibits the VA from providing help and guidance to counties that decide to set up veterans courts.

The new leadership at Van Zandt VA Medical Center is eager to promulgate that message — given its belief in the efficacy of specialty courts for veterans and the fact that only two of the 14 counties served by the hospital have veterans courts.

One is in Clinton County, and the other is in Cambria — where Senior Judge Timothy Creany on a recent Monday presided over hearings for six vets in a session where he was more upbeat than menacing and where a bevy of other court officers provided mostly encouraging updates about defendants.

Because of Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act privacy issues, veterans court — unlike standard criminal court — is not open to the public, so names cannot be used.

“He throws himself into work,” said a mentor for one defendant.

“He reports as required,” said another mentor.

“He’s a model client” of a drug treatment facility, another court officer said.

“He’s always on point,” said another officer.

Based on information provided by one mentor, a defendant has been coordinating his work schedule so that he can get therapy, but it’s been difficult, because the defendant is busy from the time he wakes up until he goes to bed.

“We’ll try to help you with your time-management issues,” the judge said. “It sounds hectic, but I’m glad you’re working full-time.”

A defendant who seemed to be in physical pain has missed appointments due to transportation issues.

“No recriminations for the past, but make sure you make it for May 3,” the judge said. “Try to keep in touch with your mentor.”

Another defendant tested positive recently for alcohol, because he drank beer after doing a chore for a friend who’s sick.

“It won’t happen again,” the defendant told the judge.

The defendant had already experienced a scolding from another judge who “c(a)me down on me like a storm,” he told Creany.

The defendant should be placed on a remote alcohol monitoring device, Creany ruled. The defendant has been looking for work, a court officer said.

“You present well,” the judge told the man. “I think you would do well in interviews.”

Yet another defendant also tested positive for alcohol.

He’d had a couple of beers while fishing, he told Creany, who also put him on an alcohol monitoring device.

Everything else was favorable about that defendant’s progress, the judge noted.

“Keep on track until you graduate in May,” Creany urged.

Another defendant, a woman, had missed a couple of previous veterans court sessions, had failed to bring her appointment log and was behind on her fine payments.

“You look scared,” the judge said.

“Take a breath,” one of the court officers told her.

She understands that she should have notified the court that she wasn’t going to make the sessions, an officer told the judge.

She didn’t have her appointment log because it had gotten wet and the pages had stuck together, an officer said.

But she is going to make a partial payment on her fines, the defendant told the judge.

There was also an issue with a doctor’s report the defendant

didn’t have with her.

Have the doctor send the report directly to me, the judge told the woman.

Otherwise, the defendant has been doing what’s required, a court officer told Creany.

Efforts started in 2012

Creany, a senior judge and Marine veteran who served off the coast of Vietnam during the Vietnam War, began his effort to launch a veterans court in Cambria County in 2012.

Initially, he wondered whether the numbers justified the commitment of time and money, but he became convinced it did upon learning that 14,200 veterans lived in Cambria County.

There are two kinds of defendants in veterans court: those on a “diversionary” track for first offenders who have committed less serious crimes and those on an “incentive” track who have committed offenses previously or who have committed more serious crimes.

The defendants in the diversionary track have their records expunged upon successful completion of the program, Creany said.

Those in the incentive track can get their charges reduced to lesser offenses upon successful completion.

Veterans courts are in a specialty or “problem-solving” court category along with DUI, drug and mental health courts, designed to deal with the typical issues that afflict eligible defendants, so that the defendants and their communities benefit by eliminating or reducing jail time and by increasing the likelihood of those defendants becoming productive, law-abiding citizens again.

“The premise … is that diversion and treatment, rather than the revolving door of incarceration, release, re-arrest and re-incarceration, is the right thing to do,” said John Zottola, an Allegheny County judge, in testimony to the state Senate Judiciary Committee in 2010.

Citing Judge Roger Warren, president of the National Center for State Courts, Zottola compared and contrasted specialty courts, which he called “transformed” courts, with traditional ones:

Traditional courts seek dispute resolution, specialty courts seek dispute avoidance; traditional courts seek a legal outcome, specialty courts a therapeutic outcome, he said.

Traditional courts have an adversarial process that is claim- or case-oriented and rights-based, while speciality courts have a collaborative process that is people-oriented and interest- or needs-based, he said.

Traditional courts emphasize interpretation and application of the law, while specialty courts emphasize interpretation and application of social science.

In traditional courts, the judge is the arbiter, while in specialty courts, he is a coach, a social worker, a cheerleader, a case or risk manager, a member of the therapy team, a listener, a translator and the lead actor, Zottola said.

Traditional courts are backward looking, precedent-based, individualistic, with few participants, while specialty courts are forward looking, plan-based, interdependent, with a wide range of participants, he said.

Finally, traditional courts are legalistic, formal and efficient, while specialty courts are commonsensical, informal and effective, he said.

Get a second chance

Veterans courts have proliferated since the first one began in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008, according to online sources.

Some national commentators have questioned the preferential treatment received by defendants in such courts — based on the principle of “equal justice under the law.”

Van Zandt Director Sigrid Andrew expressed no qualms about veterans courts.

“If you served, you deserve a second chance,” Andrew said.

Allegheny County’s veterans court was created “based on a recognition of the tremendous sacrifices made by our veterans for the safety, freedom and liberties of their fellow citizens” along with their recognition of “special circumstances,” like the trauma many veterans suffer, Zottola told the Senate committee.

The Cambria County veterans court actually places more requirements on defendants than does traditional criminal court, Creany said.

Among the differences: more review hearings, more intense supervision and more compliance requirements, Creany said.

Cambria’s veterans court has been working, Creany said.

Since it began in early 2014, 121 veterans have graduated, while only six have been discharged for repeated noncompliance and only three have become repeat offenders, Creany said.

“Our recidivism rate is 6 or 7 percent,” Creany said.

It’s as high as 50 percent in some criminal courts, he said.

Services offered

Critically, veterans court is a “gateway” to VA services, including counseling and mentoring, Andrew said.

For veterans who don’t qualify for VA services — about one in five of the defendants in Cambria and Clinton do not — there is VetAdvisor LLC, officials said.

Drug addiction is a big issue for veterans who end up in veterans court, a situation that is at least partly a reflection of a big rise in the prescribing of opiates in the military from 2002-08, according to Creany.

During that period, the number of service members on opiate prescriptions rose from 2 percent to

11 percent, Creany said, citing a study by Craig Trebilcock, a York County judge and former military judge advocate.

Among civilians, the rise during that same period was from 2 percent to just 4 percent, Creany said.

Among the 11 percent of service members discharged during that period, 25 percent to 35 percent were addicted to some degree, according to the study.

Fortunately, the prescribing of opiates by military doctors in recent years has abated, according to Creany.

Service members also may struggle with the move from military to civilian life — from unit cohesion, camaraderie and defined missions to a situation where those can be hard to find, Creany said.

Many service members also end up with post-traumatic stress syndrome, he said.

Among court personnel present for veterans court hearings is a veterans justice coordinator from the VA, a representative of VetAdvisor, a dedicated veterans court probation officer, volunteer veteran mentors and a Veterans Community Initiatives worker, who coordinates the mentors and provides access to employment programs.

Van Zandt veteran justice outreach coordinator Bonnie Clark helps the veterans get their discharge documents, connect with the county director of veterans affairs, enroll in programs and get first appointments to primary care, mental health programs and sometimes programs to deal with homelessness, she said.

The help provided by the court also includes counseling for substance abuse issues, family issues and employment.

“We use every resource possible,” Clark said.

That includes the Vietnam Veterans of America, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, she said.

Among veterans not eligible for VA services, some have their own insurance, Clark said.

Some of those go to community mental health and drug and alcohol programs, she said.

The mentors fulfill a critical role, helping defendants overcome resistance to treatment, putting “the powerful bonds of military service to good use” and providing “a gentle or forceful coaxing of the veteran to be medically compliant, meeting and treatment compliant, drug and alcohol free and crime free,” Zottola told the committee. A mentor will be a supportive individual who has “been there and done that,” he added.

Day center helpful

One of the keys to making veterans court work in Cambria County is the Day Reporting Center, to which those with substance abuse problems report to help ensure that they stay clean, while still allowing them to work regularly — which they couldn’t do if they were in a residential treatment facility, Creany said.

Veterans court actually saves the county money, according to Creany.

If defendants who have gone through the program would have gone through regular criminal court, they would have been incarcerated for enough days to run up a cost of $1.1 million — at $55 a day per inmate, Creany said.

The actual cost to the county for dealing with them through veterans court has been between $200,000 and $250,000 less than that, the judge said.

A non-traditional program like veterans court and other specialty courts could probably benefit all defendants, but the way things stand in Cambria, it might not be economically practical, the judge said.

It’s cheaper for the county to handle veterans through veterans court, but that is largely because of the support system provided to most of those veterans by the VA, at no cost to the county, the judge said.

Such veterans support includes the GI bill, said Shaun Shenk, spokesman for Van Zandt.

Such a support system isn’t available to most other criminal defendants, Creany said.

It would be “a very expensive transition” to turn the entire traditional court system into the specialty court model, Creany said.

Creany currently has 22 veterans on his roster, according to Shenk.

That count went up to 46 once, Clark said. The average number is about 35.

The court meets every other week.

When a veteran gets charged with a crime initially, he or she goes before a magisterial district judge with an attorney, who asks the judge whether the client can be considered for veterans court, Clark said.

Most attorneys who practice in Cambria and all the judges are familiar with the program, Clark said.

The veterans court team, the district attorney and the judge decide whether the defendant would be a good fit, Clark said.

The team hesitates to accept veterans with a history of violence or a long history of crimes, according to Clark.

Still, there is some flexibility, she said.

Creany is pleased with the results so far.

“It’s more satisfying for me as a judge than to see them end up in jail again and again and again, and not having fundamentally addressed their problems,” Creany said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.