Veterans who struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder or substance abuse could ping-pong through the criminal justice system for years without a support system that recognizes common problems facing former members of the military.
That’s the premise of Pennsylvania’s veterans treatment courts, which started as county initiatives several years ago to help the state’s veteran population — the fifth largest in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Such courts have spread rapidly since the first two opened in Allegheny and Lackawanna counties in November 2009. House and Senate proposals to take “veterans courts” statewide have bipartisan backing, but are still prompting concerns from the state’s court system.
The specialty courts are optional programs for military veterans who plead guilty to non-violent charges. Support staff, like specialized probation officers and mentors, try to help offenders stay out of the criminal justice system in the future.
Seventeen counties have veterans treatment courts, and the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC) is working on a system to track cases.
Supporters have marveled at veterans courts’ success in stabilizing participants, also called “graduates.” Barre Shepp is the mentor coordinator for York County’s Veterans Treatment Court. Volunteer mentors, he said, are the heart and soul of the program.
“They can call us at any hour and we will respond. We are there for them,” said Shepp. “We are the true battle buddies and we leave no veteran behind.”
Sen. Rob Teplitz (D-Dauphin) was one of several Democrats who, at a Tuesday press conference, voiced support for a measure to take the program statewide.
“We all want to support the troops but we must do more than talk about it,” Teplitz said. “We must do something concrete and this is a great place to start.”
But some say the initiative is best left to individual counties. Art Heinz, a spokesman for the AOPC, cautioned that veterans courts may not be sustainable in every county because of varying size, population, and funding.
“It means that it is something for each county to decide,” said Heinz, “weighing need with available resources.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that 18 Pennsylvania counties have veterans treatment courts. The number of counties is 17. Additionally, the article has been updated to clarify that the commonwealth's first veterans courts opened simultaneously in Lackawanna and Allegheny counties in November 2009.