Armstrong County creates court program to help veterans get back on track
Armstrong County veterans who are accepted into a new court program after running afoul of the law will be expected to do what they did while in uniform: follow orders and work hard to accomplish a mission.
In this case, the mission is for veterans to get their life back on track after they get in trouble with the law.
Armstrong County Common Pleas Court on Friday launched Veterans Treatment Court to combat what county officials described as a growing number of veterans going through the criminal justice system. Years in the making, Armstrong County’s program is the 21st such specialized court in Pennsylvania, officials said.
“We want to help (veterans) get the help they need so they can be diverted out of the criminal justice system,” said Armstrong County Chief Probation Officer Regina Hines.
The Veterans Court program is similar to the state’s existing Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program, which enables first-time offenders who complete various ARD requirements to get charges removed from their criminal record.
The Veterans Court program will take 24 months to complete, officials said. Selection of who is admitted into the program will be done on a case-by-case basis, though veterans facing homicide or sex charges won’t be eligible.
Veterans in the program will be required to undergo counseling and any treatment deemed necessary for problems ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to addiction. They also will be required to meet with a probation officer, and veterans who volunteer to participate as mentors will be assigned to veterans working their way through the program.
“The treatment team provides the resources, the support that is needed and the veteran receives the treatment they need to restore their lives,” said Christine Beaver, a veterans justice outreach coordinator for VA Butler Healthcare who has visited incarcerated Armstrong County veterans for years.
In Armstrong County, Beaver said she encounters two to four veterans a month who are involved in the criminal justice system and could benefit from a diversionary program such as Veterans Treatment Court.
“We want them to get the help they need so they can be diverted out of the criminal justice system,” Beaver said.
Ben Knight, who served in the Army from 2003 to 2009 and did three tours of duty in Iraq as a tank crewman, said he benefited from a similar program in neighboring Butler County.
“When I got out I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” said Knight, 33, of Butler, adding that he became a “one-man wolf pack” who drank heavily and got multiple DUIs. He said he found out that he suffered from PTSD.
He entered Butler County’s Veterans Court program in 2016, underwent intensive counseling and treatment, and completed the program last year.
Life is different now, he said.
“I see my son in Sarver and I have a girlfriend with me,” Knight said, adding he graduated from Butler County Community College and is now studying cognitive science studies at Slippery Rock University. He also teaches yoga and became a licensed massage therapist.
“Now instead of doing bad things to bad people, I am doing good things for good people,” he said.
That’s the point, Armstrong County officials said.
“Individuals who complete Veterans Court have a very low rate of recidivism,” District Attorney Katie Charlton said.
Armstrong County Common Pleas President Judge James J. Pancik added: “Programs like this nationwide have a 97% success rate. This is why we feel so strong about creating the court.”
County commissioners appointed probation officer Brian Zebracki, an Army veteran who served two tours in Iraq, to be the new program’s fulltime coordinator.
Officials are seeking veterans to serve as volunteer mentors in the program. They will receive training through the VA. Anyone who is interested is asked to call Zebracki at 724-548-3491.
Chuck Biedka is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chuck at 724-226-4711, [email protected] or via Twitter .