Westmoreland County prepares to launch new veterans court program
Westmoreland County court officials will soon reactivate a special court to assist veterans charged with crimes.
After years of hiatus, a reinvigorated and enhanced veterans court — expected to begin operations by early May — will enable former members of the military convicted of crimes to earn reduced sentences.
“I think we have a need here,” said Common Pleas Court Judge Tim Krieger, who will preside over the new court.
Krieger, a retired Navy lieutenant, will oversee the criminal cases prosecuted against veterans as part of the program that will offer incentives such as shorter jail sentences or probation for veterans.
Cases will be selected by the district attorney’s office. Assistant District Attorney Leo Ciaramitaro, a retired lieutenant colonel with the Pennsylvania National Guard, helped craft the new program. He said it was designed to offer counseling and treatment as part of the required supervision regimen for veterans.
Veterans charged with serious and violent offenses such as murder, assaults, sex crimes and other offenses where a state prison sentence is likely will not be allowed to participate. Oversight by counselors and the judge will be pivotal for the program’s success, Ciaramitaro said.
“Veterans have already shown they can have discipline. We’re trying to tap into that,” he said.
County officials attempted to form a modified veterans court in 2012. But that effort found little traction, in part, because of the limited number of minor offenses that were eligible for inclusion as well as a lack of incentive such as shorter jail sentences or probation terms.
In addition to a wider range of cases eligible for the program, the revised court will include mentoring from veteran volunteers, officials said.
The new court will be based in the county Common Pleas Court. The previous version of veterans court mostly involved cases brought at the magisterial district judge level and served as a jail diversionary program.
Westmoreland County is home to about 28,000 veterans — the second most in Western Pennsylvania, according to Matt Zamosky, director of the county’s Office of Veteran Affairs. He said there appears to be need and an increased level of interest in the new court.
“Veterans court is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. You have to go through the motions,” Zamosky said. “Because of the nature of service, the nature of warfare, some people have trouble adjusting to normal life. This is a way to let a person’s service not have a negative impact on their life.”
Krieger said the new court will allow for more intensive supervision and better care for veterans.
“There is a camaraderie of being in the military that you don’t get anywhere else. Once someone gets out (of the service), there can be a sense of loss. Hopefully, we can rebuild that,” Krieger said. “If we can help these folks to begin becoming productive citizens, it’s a positive for everyone.”
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293, [email protected] or via Twitter .