A new program especially for veterans is being introduced in Indiana County, but don’t think it’s anything like another 25 percent discount on dinner at a local restaurant or a free ticket to a high school game.
The Indiana County Common Pleas Court has joined a growing trend across Pennsylvania this month by introducing Veterans Treatment Court, a customized and targeted approach to handling the legal problems confronting a special segment of the population.
It’s far from another perk or a token of thanks for service in defense of the nation, this is for veterans in trouble — defendants charged with criminal offenses in the county.
The incomparable kind of violence that they confronted and the resulting changes in mental health they’ve experienced have placed military veterans in a group of citizens that’s distinct in its conformance to standards set for society by the law, and Indiana County court officials say the legal system recognizes that.
Veterans in the program aren’t excused of their crimes. But at the same time they are put on a path to becoming law-abiding citizens, they’re offered a course of rehabilitation to conquer the problems that led them to become offenders.
Veterans Treatment Court is a lot like Drug Treatment Court, a program set up more than a decade ago by Judge William Martin and conducted in his courtroom ever since.
Judge Michael Clark is overseeing Veterans Treatment Court, which is now screening and accepting those accused veterans who qualify for the program.
The program is set up in five phases and is designed to be completed in 14 months, according to Court Administrator Christy Donofrio.
The program takes a team approach to adjudicating criminal charges against veterans. Defense lawyers, probation officers and prosecutors are part of the system as they are for every criminal case. This also includes representatives from the county Office of Veterans Affairs, area mental health professionals and drug and alcohol abuse counselors.
Completing each veteran’s case management team, and maybe the most important part to it, is a mentor veteran chosen to partner with each defendant.
“The one unique characteristic of veterans court is the mentor portion of it,” Clark explained. “We will have mentors with military backgrounds who would be assigned to each participant in the program. The mentor’s job is not as a counselor or a tattle tale. It’s really to be a friend and to hold someone accountable to the program as a support person.”
“It is an intensive treatment court, but the mentor piece is what makes it special,” Donofrio said. “That model has been proven successful, in that veterans respond well to other veterans or people that have military experience.”
Working together, the team members follow a mission statement that has been adopted for Veterans Treatment Court: “Our mission is to identify and provide specific interventions for veterans involved in the Indiana County criminal justice system, in such a way to promote public safety, reduce recidivism, and reduce costs, while improving the lives of veterans, their families and the community through treatment support and intensive court supervision”
The attorneys sort out the legal aspects to the case. They recognize the victims’ rights, protect the defendants’ rights and work toward the offenders accepting responsibility and consequences for their wrongs.
At the same time it provides the counseling services that had been missing from the veterans’ lives before they got into criminal activity.
The treatment specifically addresses “the mental health issues that veterans suffer from service, particularly combat,” Clark said. “One of the things we learned that didn’t really jump out at me is that there are veterans who served who may not have been in combat, but who were closely aligned or good friends with veterans who were in combat. Even that contact created issues and mental health concerns for those veterans.”
Clark said the veterans treatment court team members are united for the success of the offenders.
“It’s a non-adversarial kind of process. You will have team members — Pat Dougherty, as the D.A., you’ll have a defense attorney, a V.A. representative, the VJO specialist, the judge, probation, you may have a mental health representative,” he said. “It’s not adversarial, meaning the goal is to get the participant to achieve results, reach milestones, move through the program and successfully complete the program, not come back, and become a productive member of our society.”
Clark told of a story he heard in a training session. The participant had violated gun laws and was not in compliance, and the team was having a meeting for review.
“The public defender, who you would think should be advocating, said ‘I don’t think they’re right for the program and should be out.’ The mental health person and the others also said he should be out, and they got back to the prosecutor. He was the only one person who stood up for the person and said ‘no, they need to be in the program.’ So there are opposite roles of what you might see. That’s a unique aspect to it.”
Clark’s plan is to meet with the Veterans Treatment Court defendants at least every other week during their time in the program. All the team members would take part in those sessions, when Clark would hear updates and progress reports on each case.
Between the court sessions, Clark said, defendants would periodically meet with their probation officers, and some might have to take scheduled or random drug and alcohol tests. Some might be put on curfew; and some might be required to perform community service or comply with other conditions that are imposed on most defendants who are placed on parole or probation.
“It’s intense. It’s harder, I think, than normal probation,” Clark said.
“Absolutely. Definitely more intensive. It is treatment,” Donofrio said.
How often they are tested or meet with their P.O. would depend on the severity of their offense.
“Some people may not move through the phases as quickly as possible,” Clark said. “To move through the phases, you have to have a period of sobriety, you have to attend all of our counseling sessions and appointments, you have to attend court hearings. If you miss those things or don’t comply with those things, you can delay your movement through the program.”
Each veteran in the program would follow one of two tracks leading to the adjudication of the charges against them.
“One is a diversionary track, similar to ARD (accelerated rehabilitative disposition), where if you complete the program, your case charges would be dismissed,” he said. “The other is an incentive track program, where if you complete the program you may have your charges reduced from a higher offense to a lower offense.
“For the diversionary program, their case would be placed on hold until they complete it. If they are discharged from the program, they would have to come back and go with their case. If it’s an incentive track, they would plead guilty and sentencing would be delayed.
“Our goal is to rehabilitate and address whatever underlying issues caused them to be in the program, and reduce recidivism,” Clark said.
Make no mistake, the mission to start a veterans court isn’t driven by the numbers. Court officials said their impression is that the number of military people as a proportion of all those involved in the justice system is probably smaller than the percentage of veterans in society as a whole.
That means a small number of people qualify to serve as mentors to the offenders in Veterans Treatment Court. They must be veterans as well.
The mentor coordinator for the program, Capt. Greg Marsh of the Air Force Reserves, said certain veterans would best fit in as mentors.
“Starting with Judge Clark’s requirements, we need those with integrity, follow-up, personal accountability and responsibility,” Marsh said. “But they need compassion, the ability to do some counseling and listening.
“It’s not helpful for people to feel like they should be in a military training environment. It’s not the circumstance to be directive and forceful; it’s more a collaborative relationship that should be expected for someone that would want to be in a mentor role.”
Marsh, who also is commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 1989 in White Township, said some of the earliest mentors selected are VFW members, but that’s not a requirement.
“Probably the best way to put it is there’s a camaraderie, kinship and a familiarity. An ability to be able to rely on somebody who has gone through similar circumstances,” Marsh said. “We do try to match up campaign service — they would not necessarily put a World War II veteran with someone coming from Afghanistan. They would be like talking different languages.”
While certain veterans are the ideal mentors, only certain veteran offenders are being accepted into the program — those who are not first disqualified as violent offenders or those without mental health or substance abuse issues.
The disqualifying criteria are murder, arson, voluntary manslaughter, Megan’s Law offenses, crimes against children, kidnapping, escape, robbery and assault by a prisoner, Clark said.
“The defendant who is not in need of treatment — and there are people who commit crimes who don’t have mental health issues or drug or alcohol issues,” he said. “Because this is a treatment-based court, they’re there to receive treatment — that person would not qualify. Or if they have out-of-county or out-of-state charges, that would disqualify them. And there are some, I am guessing, that would have a condition that’s beyond the scope of what we could help them with, and that would theoretically disqualify them.
“So you have to look at what would disqualify them. And if you’re not one of those, as a veteran, you could apply for veterans’ treatment court and come up for consideration,” Clark said.
Donofrio said veteran offenders have the best chance for recovery and success when intervention begins early. Veterans now in the court pipeline are being told by probation officers about the new program.
“Ideally it would start with law enforcement,” Donofrio said. “When we have everything finalized, we plan on having a meeting with the bar association, law enforcement, magisterial district court judges. But it would be great if it could start with law enforcement, when a person gets arrested, police could inquire, ‘Are you a veteran?’ And it could start from there.”
Indiana County’s court system actually has had a small-scale model for Veterans Treatment Court in place for defendants not charged with felonies or misdemeanors.
“We have a diversion program at the magisterial district level for summary offenses for veterans,” Donofrio said. “We had one official graduate, that was several years ago. But we do have an existing program for lower level summary offenses at the magisterial district courts.
“Judge Martin and I have been talking about starting a veterans’ court for years. It’s something that Judge Martin has always been committed to and has wanted the court to be in a position to do,” she continued.
“It requires a lot of time because it is an intensive court. We have our drug treatment court which Judge Martin presides over, so he knows how much time it takes. The court is in a position now when Judge Clark came on board, and Judge Martin decided the time has come to put the plan in action.”
Clark often mentioned the need for a Veterans Treatment Court during the 2017 political campaign. Clark emerged from a field of four area attorneys who sought to fill the seat on the bench left vacant by the 2016 retirement of Judge Carol Hanna.
Clark said he has been eager to see Veterans Treatment Court get off the ground.
“I’m blessed to have Pa resident Judge who is supportive. I have talked to Judge Bianco and he’s excited about it, he’s supportive as well,” he said.
“The veterans are an important population and we’re excited to be able to take this on,” Donofrio said.