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Pa. Supreme Court justice: Special courts help veterans find way home

| Friday, Nov. 3, 2017, 8:57 p.m.
Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Debra Todd reacts to a question during an interview with the Tribune-Review at the Pennsylvania Judicial Center in Harrisburg on Nov. 19, 2015. Todd, a Democrat from Cranberry, is a former litigation attorney for U.S. Steel Corp. and former Superior Court judge. (Trib photo)
Sean Stipp | Trib Total Media
Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Debra Todd reacts to a question during an interview with the Tribune-Review at the Pennsylvania Judicial Center in Harrisburg on Nov. 19, 2015. Todd, a Democrat from Cranberry, is a former litigation attorney for U.S. Steel Corp. and former Superior Court judge. (Trib photo)

As Americans, we owe a debt of gratitude to our military veterans. The justices of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania are committed to doing everything we can to support the men and women who have served our country as they transition back to civilian life.

Many veterans struggle with this readjustment. Pennsylvania has the fourth-highest population of veterans in this country — 1 million men and women — and their struggles affect all of our communities. Some veterans return home from service with invisible wounds, inhibiting their successful integration into their communities.

It is estimated that out of the more than 2.7 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 20 percent suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression. Yet only half of these veterans seek treatment. Others resort to self-medication with drugs and alcohol, which often leads to their involvement with the criminal justice system.

One-third of America's homeless are veterans. On any given night, 40,000 veterans are on the streets. The majority suffer from substance abuse, mental illness or related disorders. Homeless veterans have a higher prevalence of ending up in the criminal justice system. And sadly, 22 veterans commit suicide every day in the United States.

In 2008, Judge Robert Russell of Buffalo, N.Y., created the nation's first veterans court. There are now more than 300 veterans courts in the United States, serving more than 13,000 veterans.

In veterans courts, eligible veteran defendants with substance dependency and/or mental illness are offered an opportunity to participate in a voluntary program that involves judicially supervised compliance with a treatment plan developed by veteran health-care professionals. Mentor coordinators, veterans who volunteer their time, help their fellow veterans navigate the court, treatment and Veterans Affairs systems.

At graduation, successful participants have become stable, employed and substance-free, and continue to receive mental-health care and counseling as needed. Successful veterans courts boast a reduced recidivism rate, 5 percent to 10 percent, and save countless tax dollars by keeping our veterans out of prison.

Veterans courts truly help our veterans find their way back home.

Pennsylvania has 20 veterans courts, with more in formation, and 14 counties providing magisterial district court diversionary programs for veterans. More than 450 Pennsylvania veterans currently participate in these programs.

There is nothing more gratifying than attending a graduation ceremony and seeing the transformation the program has inspired in a veteran's life. I have seen the arresting police officer attend to congratulate the vet on getting his life back on track.

I cannot begin to know everything these veterans and their families have been through. But I do know that they have served our country honorably and have overcome tremendous challenges. The fact that they have successfully completed the veterans court program speaks volumes.

To learn more about Pennsylvania's veterans courts, go here .

And, to all of our Pennsylvania veterans, thank you for your service.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Debra Todd serves as the court's liaison to Pennsylvania's veterans courts.

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