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Critics of alternative to prison, parole come from ranks of military

| Monday, Nov. 11, 2013, 12:16 a.m.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Military Police Company Bravo, Marine Corps, posts the colors at the beginning of Veterans Court graduation on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013, in the Allegheny County Courthouse, Downtown.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Assistant District Attorney Debra Barnisin-Lange applauds Veterans Court graduates on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013, during their graduation ceremony in the county courthouse, Downtown.

Military veterans can be the harshest critics of the 168 specialized courts nationwide that provide alternatives to prison or parole for ex-service personnel who commit crimes — often by preventing crime through anger management and substance abuse treatment.

“The people we talk to, the victims who we try to get consent for these kinds of cases to come in, the most questions we get — and the most resistance we get — are from fellow veterans,” said Debra Barnisin-Lange, an assistant Allegheny County district attorney who works with Pittsburgh's Veterans Court.

They want veterans to meet a higher standard of civilian conduct and often are reluctant to cut them a break for arrests, Lange said.

Although these courts often are pitched nationwide as a way for civilian prosecutors and judges to help combat veterans healing from the physical and mental wounds of battle, a Tribune-Review investigation found few of the 66 defendants in Allegheny County Veterans Court from its 2009 founding through 2012 went to war zones; few who deployed were inz combat.

Only a third of the defendants ended up in war zones while in uniform, and nearly all served in rear-echelon jobs such as mechanics, cooks and clerk typists, their military records show.

Four received decorations indicating they underwent extensive combat — three soldiers awarded the Army's Combat Infantryman Badge and a Marine awarded the Combat Action Ribbon. One fought in Vietnam, the others in Iraq and Afghanistan, a Tribune-Review analysis found.

Three of the four defendants with combat exposure committed violent crimes as civilians: a knifing in West Deer, domestic assault in Verona and the beating of two men outside a McKeesport bar in 2011.

That tavern fight involved Sgt. Robert George, 28, an Army paratrooper who was recovering from serious wounds while on leave. He got arrested on his first night home, part of a “huge adjustment period,” he told the Trib. Now honorably discharged from the Army, George said he has the “awesome” county Veterans Court to thank.

“It kept me out of jail. They're fair. They care about you and they work with you,” said George, who is studying computer-aided drafting. “On the downside, you see guys who got into trouble and they abuse the program. They don't understand the consequences of what they did.”

Guidance lacking

Veterans courts nationwide are divided on whether to accept vets who didn't deploy to battle, and the Trib found a lack of defined federal rules on who should be accepted.

In California, for example, Orange County's Combat Veterans Court bars veterans who can't show some connection between their overseas experience and later civilian criminal misconduct — usually through diagnosed traumatic brain injury from roadside mines or post-traumatic stress disorder from combat or sexual trauma.

Judge Jack Carter in Anchorage, the founder in 2004 of what is believed to be the nation's first Veterans Court, said that most of his defendants “had seen combat, most from Vietnam but also Iraq.” He said he started the program because he encountered so many veterans dealing with flashbacks.

Similar to Orange County's docket, Allegheny County veterans must have a diagnosed traumatic brain injury, substance abuse problem or psychological disorder to enter the court, though anyone who deploys to a war zone is presumed to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder that influenced their criminality.

Judge: Don't limit access

As Pennsylvania counties start veterans courts, state Supreme Court Justice Seamus P. McCaffery, a veteran and former police officer, said he doesn't want them to welcome only combat veterans. Some mental illnesses, such as PTSD, can arise from peacetime operations, he said.

“If we were to say that only guys who had been in combat qualify, OK, what does that mean?” McCaffery asked. “What do we do with a kid who was a reservist and had to pull off the helmet that contained a head, from a training accident?”

The Trib interviewed half of the defendants in Allegheny County Veterans Court before 2013. Each said it was a tough, rewarding experience and would recommend it to other veterans, although some acknowledged having second thoughts about entering.

An Air Force veteran, Terry Lee Jones, 57, of Homewood received treatment and classes at VA Pittsburgh after drunken driving charges in 2012. The heating-air conditioning specialist hasn't committed another crime, according to court records.

“If I'd gone to a regular court, I would've done six months of probation and then been through with it,” Jones said. “I think I got more punishment as a veteran.”

Carl Prine is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at or 412-320-7826.

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