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New court to handle misdemeanor cases of veterans

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Published:   |   Updated: August 13, 2013 at 10:34 PM

Starting Oct. 1, honorably discharged veterans charged with certain misdemeanors in Hillsborough County will be able to have their cases heard in a specialized court that will take into account the unique needs of those who have served.

The Misdemeanor Veterans Treatment Court will focus on honorably discharged veterans suffering from military service-related mental illness, traumatic brain injury, substance abuse or other disorders, according to the order creating the new court. They must be accused of misdemeanor, county and municipal ordinance violations like making false 911 calls, disorderly intoxication, possession of cannabis, or panhandling. And they must be eligible for evaluation and treatment services through the Veterans Administration.

Veterans who meet those criteria will enter a court that offers treatment for their underlying issues if they volunteer to take part.

Once transferred to Veterans Court, defendants will be required to attend court hearings and participate in ongoing assessment and treatment.

If the court determines a veteran has successfully completed the program, the court will dismiss the charges. However, if the court finds that the veteran is not living up to its requirements, the case can be sent back to the original court. Being arrested again while in Veterans Court is one of the things that would prompt a review, according to the order signed Monday by Chief Judge Manuel Menendez Jr.

The new court, which will be known as County Criminal Division “V”, will be headed up by the judge who began pushing for the court more than two years ago.

Judge Richard Weis, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves, saw that many veterans suffering from service-related mental illness, traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder were being charged repeatedly with misdemeanors.

“The Veterans Court is not designed to provide preferential treatment to veterans,” said Weis, who has run a pilot version of the program in his courtroom for more than a year with great success, according to Menendez. “A defendant in Veterans Court would answer to and face the consequences of the charged offense. Rather, the specialty court is intended to guide the veteran into existing Veterans Administration and community programs and treatment resources to habilitate the veteran and preclude further justice system involvement.”

Weis said the Veterans Court will include pretrial intervention programs, treatment-based programs, post-adjudicatory programs and status hearings to monitor the status and compliance of the veteran. The treatment and counseling programs — which will be tailored to the individual veteran and will generally be provided through the Veterans Administration — may include substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, and any other medical or psychological treatment and counseling as directed by the court, he said.

Several veterans have already been identified as candidates to enter the treatment court and initial planning is that approximately 25 veterans will be assigned to the specialized division at any given time, said Weis, adding that, “I am grateful for the guidance, assistance and support in establishing the Misdemeanor Veterans Treatment Court and honored to be selected as the judge for the specialized division to serve the veterans of Hillsborough County.”

In a county with almost 100,000 veterans — Hillsborough has the fourth highest concentration in the state — those who deal with defendants back the concept of a veterans court.

Hillsborough County Public Defender Julie Holt, who took part in the discussions leading to the creation of Veterans Court, said not only is it needed, but it should be expanded to include felony charges as well.

“It’s a good idea,” said Holt. “It recognizes that, in fact, we owe a debt to those who have served in the military. As a result, that may suffer from mental health issues. Quite often, we are reluctant to accept this in the criminal justice system. This sends a message that we recognize a special status even though you have might charged with a crime.”

Veterans Court, “is a holistic approach,” said Holt, “more focused on rehabilitation and appropriate treatment component as opposed to straight punishment.”

Holt said the concept is so good that it should be expanded to include more serious crimes.

As set up, the court would handle about 100 veterans a year, said Holt, adding that could be expanded five-fold.

“Our vision is that before long we will have higher level crimes,” said Holt. “Something like grand theft as opposed to petit theft. We are not talking about murders or things of that standing. We recognize veterans suffer from things such as post traumatic stress disorder, and that cuts across all crimes. If in fact we recognize this unique and special population, it needs to be across the board.”

Though usually adversaries in court, the State Attorney’s Office agrees with Holt that Veterans Court is an idea whose time has come.

“We are taking people who are entitled to services — services that are already paid for — and have served the country, but maybe slipped off the radar,” said Renee Muratti, the Hillsborough County court supervisor for the State Attorney’s Office. “This puts them in touch with things that will get them back on their feet by giving them the support they need. They’ll talk about housing, transportation. It is a holistic approach for someone who might otherwise be overwhelmed.”

Muratti said Veterans Court is “starting out small, with selected charges, to work out the kinks.”

The plan, she said, is to eventually expand it to more serious charges.

“I think Judge Weis would love to expand it to felonies at some point,” she said.

Judge Robert Russell, who helped launch the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court in that city in 2008, said he was inspired by the case of a Vietnam veteran who did not respond until he received peer counseling.

Russell said that with more than 2 million men and women having “served in this global war on terror,” and with studies showing that one in five of those veterans have reported mental health problems, it was only natural to explore creating a court designed specifically for veterans.

When asked what advice he would offer after nearly four years of running a veterans court, Russell said understanding that veterans come to court “with a number of issues” is key.

Many veterans “come to court with mental health issues and issues with respect to dependency on drugs,” he said, adding that those problems are being exacerbated by higher levels of unemployment and homelessness among veterans compared with civilians.

Palm Beach, Okaloosa and Broward counties already have veterans courts, according to state veterans affairs officials. Pinellas County has a veterans drug court.

haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

@haltman

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