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Judicial program could help veterans dodge prosecution, jail time

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Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
 

Veterans facing criminal charges could get a break under a program slated to start next month that will give former military members a chance to avoid jail.

Officials said the newly created diversionary program is designed to afford veterans an opportunity to receive treatment rather than be prosecuted and potentially jailed for summary and some nonviolent misdemeanor offenses.

“It's like a second chance,” said Court Administrator Paul Kuntz.

The program, which is expected to serve as a pilot project for the state, will require veterans arrested to enter treatment almost immediately after they are charged with a crime.

It will be administered through magistrate judges and not at the Common Pleas Court level, where other jail diversionary programs, such as the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program, are doled out.

Instead of attending a preliminary hearing before a magistrate, the veteran, if deemed eligible by the district attorney's office, will receive information about the diversionary program.

Kuntz said there will be a three-week delay in the case to determine whether the veteran is qualified to receive treatment.

Veterans allowed to enter the program will be required to complete applicable treatment for issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, drug and alcohol abuse, and anger management. The treatment services will be provided by the Veterans Administration, Kuntz said.

Once completed, the veteran would return to the magistrate court in six months and have the criminal charges dismissed or withdrawn, Kuntz said.

Veterans advocates said the diversionary program is needed.

“It allows them to treat underlying problems,” said Matt Zamosky, veterans affairs director for Westmoreland County. “We owe it to our veterans to not hold their service against them, especially if their service created the underlying problem.”

Zamosky served on the committee, which included Westmoreland County court and law enforcement officials, that crafted the diversionary program.

Only a small fraction of the more than 36,000 veterans living in Westmoreland County have had problems with the law.

Thirty-six inmates at the county jail from September through November were veterans, according to Warden John Walton.

“We're trying some things for people who put their lives on the line for us, who are having some problems,” Walton said. “The biggest thing is we'll get them the help they need.”

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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