HOLLIDAYSBURG - After almost two years of planning, Blair County officials are ready to begin a Magisterial District Veterans Court that will give those who served the nation and now are in trouble with the law a chance to avoid having a criminal record and receive services at the Van Zandt VA Medical Center in Altoona.
President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva issued an administrative order Wednesday creating the alternative court, which is designed to provide help for veterans who commit relatively minor crimes and prevent more serious offenses.
A veteran who successfully completes the program will have his record expunged.
Kopriva said the Magisterial District Veterans Court will be the sixth specialty court in the county. Blair already operates an adult drug court, a juvenile drug court, a driving under the influence court, a family drug court and a truancy court.
Unlike the drug and alcohol courts, the Veterans Court will be operated through the county's six magisterial district judges.
It will be for first-time offenders who commit summary offenses like public drunkenness, disorderly conduct and harassment.
Police officers and any victims must approve the entry of the suspect into the court.
If the participant doesn't successfully complete the six-month program, his case will be returned to the regular justice system for disposition.
Magisterial District Judge Fred Miller of Tyrone played a big part in helping to bring the idea of a veterans court to the attention of the public.
Miller a year ago suggested a magisterial veterans court be started in Blair County, and he participated in the group that put the details in place.
The group included Penn State Altoona officer Mike Lowery, Greenfield Township Chief Ron Givler, First Assistant District Attorney Jackie Bernard, Veterans Outreach Officer Bonnie Clark from Van Zandt, Blair County Court Administrator Janice Meadows, representatives of the Drug and Alcohol Partnership of Blair County, Judy Rosser and Charmayne Raia, and Kopriva.
Miller said, "We as a court system worked together. For it to work, we need to have everybody involved."
He called it a "win-win" program.
The magisterial district judge said there are at least 13,000 veterans in Blair County.
Some of those veterans become involved in the justice system, not necessarily committing major crimes but initially being arrested for disorderly conduct, public drunkenness and other minor crimes.
Miller said the idea of the lower court veterans program is to prevent more major crimes from happening by offering help.
The harassment charge in the long run could turn into domestic abuse. Public drunkenness could become driving under the influence and disorderly conduct may be the precursor to a more violent situation, he explained.
A veteran is to be referred as a possible candidate for the program. His situation will be evaluated at the VA, and he or she then will be admitted to the court.
In some of the other specialty courts the participants often face state prison sentences or loss of their children if they don't participate.
In the veterans court, there will be no such dire consequence, other than a criminal conviction, which means, Clark explained, participation will be voluntary.
She confers with veterans in trouble with the law over a 14-county catchment area, and she explained that those offered the program won't be happy about being arrested but many will understand the court can help them.
"They know it's going to be beneficial," she said.
The VA can offer many programs. Clark said there are programs for drug and alcohol abuse and post traumatic stress and depression. The VA offers individual counseling, as well as group counseling, said Clark.
Clark will direct the court participant into the programs he or she might need and she will also provide periodic updates on the individual's progress.
The updates will go to the DA's office, to Bernard.
Bernard explained the program from the law enforcement perspective.
Police and the District Attorney want to make sure a suspect is held accountable for whatever he has done, but she said the alternative program offers him a chance to clear his record.
Bernard said she and others who worked to bring the veterans court into existence recognize the sacrifices the veteran made for the nation, those sacrifices often coming at "great personal expense."
"Here's a way to say these services are available," she said.
She wanted to emphasize that veterans do not commit crime at a greater rate than any other group of citizens and the new court was not created because of that concern.
Chief Givler participated in the planning of the new court because he knows the cost of war to his own family.
An uncle served in World War II, his father in the Korean Conflict and his mother's youngest brother died in Vietnam.
"I have a concern for the veterans and also a concern from the veterans standpoint. If [veterans court] operates as it is intended, it will be of benefit for the veterans themselves, Givler said.
He said he comes in contact with veterans suffering from post traumatic stress and drug and alcohol problems. He knows some have mental health issues and physical problems.
Givler describes the new veterans program as a "one and done" effort.
People in the service, like police officers who serve day-to-day, are often under a huge amount of stress.
Many don't seek help because they fear they will be perceived as weak, he explained.
The veterans court will offer help, but Givler said treatment doesn't work unless somebody wants it.
The new court will give the veteran the chance to get help, to make amends, he said.
He said they will get top care at the VA Hospital.
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.