Veterans courts in Allegheny, Westmoreland seek earlier start on treatment
For eight years now, the “graduation” ceremony for successfully completing Veterans Court has been a high point of the week surrounding Veterans Day.
There are speeches about the challenges of re-entering society after serving in the military; congratulations on turning one's life around; prayers, music and handshakes before the distribution of certificates to the successful participants whose charges have been resolved in a way that addresses their underlying addiction or mental health issues.
“Sometimes all you have left is that fighting spirit ... and we set that fight loose on society, on addiction,” said Ben Stahl, a Navy veteran, executive director of the Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania and one of the speakers at Thursday's graduation at the Allegheny County Courthouse.
“Being here today is proof you can redirect that fighting spirit. No longer will you fight with yourself; now you can fight for yourself.”
But if new initiatives under way in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties are successful, there could be fewer graduates in the years ahead. They will instead be identified and diverted into veterans treatment programs at the district court level so that nonviolent charges can be reduced or dismissed before they ever reach the Court of Common Pleas.
Over the past year, Common Pleas Judge John Zottola, the coordinator for Allegheny County's Veterans Court program, said he has been meeting with and educating local district judges on identifying eligible veterans and referring them to mentoring and treatment programs for minor offenses in the lower courts.
And after the Common Pleas-level Veterans Court in Westmoreland County languished for lack of participation and the departure of the judge who had been running it, President Judge Richard McCormick said the county studied the issue and shifted its focus to intervening with veterans at the district justice level as well.
“Treatment court is a long process, a very intense process, and we only have so many human resources in that regard,” McCormick said. “We thought we'd impact people better with the model we've come up with. It's designed to get people early on.”
“Treatment courts” like Veterans Court are increasingly popular across the nation, focusing on coordinating prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation officers and treatment providers to help defendants get help for the root cause of their crimes, rather than just punishing them.
Debra Barnisin-Lange, an assistant district attorney in Allegheny County, said their program's graduates had a recidivism rate — being arrested again after graduating — of only about 4 percent, compared with more than 60 percent of regular court defendants who end up back in front of a judge.
As of 2016, more than 350 veterans treatment courts existed at all levels in the U.S., said Chris Deutsch, spokesman for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals and its Justice for Vets project promoting veterans courts. That number may be even higher if including drug treatment courts that have a special track for veterans, he said.
If a district judge's office identifies an eligible veteran when nonviolent charges are filed, the VA can step in with mentoring programs and referrals to treatment for drug or mental health issues, McCormick said.
The charges can be put on hold as long as a defendant is in treatment, and when that's completed, the charges can be reduced or dismissed at the district level before they reach the Court of Common Pleas, he said.
The supervision by the district court is less intense than the regular courtroom check-ins in Allegheny County's program, but participants whose charges are held for trial still get higher priority when qualifying for Westmoreland's drug court program, McCormick said.
McCormick noted that participation in Westmoreland's program was still low, though it has been available in its current form for about six months.
“The response hasn't been great; we're a little disappointed,” he said. In response, he re-emphasized its availability and importance in a meeting with district judges last week and reached out to the probation office to have it refer any clients who may be eligible for veterans programs but hadn't previously identified themselves.
Daniel Kunz, supervising attorney for Duquesne University law students who represent many Allegheny vets court participants, said he'd been trying to work with district judges himself for years to identify eligible veterans sooner. Earlier intervention can get participants into treatment sooner and help prevent violations of probation or bond conditions.
“I saw the need to increase intervention at that level, do diversions that would introduce eligible veterans to treatment and services and maybe have charges reduced or withdrawn,” Kunz said. “All models are good. Whenever you can intercept these cases is good.”
Zottola said the focus on early intervention extends to the Allegheny County Jail. At Thursday's graduation ceremony, he introduced a video, paid for by District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala's office, that will be played for inmates at the jail. In it, two Veterans Court participants tell inmates about the specialty court and urge any veterans to identify themselves to their caseworkers so they can start the evaluation and application process for the court and any of its affiliated services.
Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6660, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @msantoni.