Program targets troubled veterans at magisterial level
A pilot program will expand next month in an effort to keep troubled military veterans on the straight and narrow.
The Magisterial District Judge Diversion program, believed by state officials to be one-of-a-kind to Pennsylvania, is patterned after a program already established in the Court of Common Pleas in 13 Pennsylvania counties, including Northumberland, where incarceration can be avoided through supervised treatment.
The state cites drug and alcohol abuse, anger management and post-traumatic stress disorder as issues that could trigger criminal behavior. The hope is that by intervening in cases handled by the lower courts, veterans in trouble with the law won't find themselves repeating that behavior.
In Pennsylvania and elsewhere, some veterans, particularly those returning from active military and combat areas, are having trouble, said Art Heinz, communications coordinator for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC).
"It's a recognition of clear evidence nationwide ... that their readjustment to life is difficult," he said.
The pilot program began last month in Centre County. It will expand to Monroe and Westmoreland counties beginning New Year's Day.
Hugh A. Jones, magisterial district judge, Mount Carmel, himself a veteran, said he'd be interested in hearing more about the program.
"I'd certainly be willing to be part of this," he said Wednesday.
DA must sign off
The program would allow veterans accused of summary offenses like fighting and public drunkenness to choose supervised treatment instead of judicial punishment.
One caveat: the county's district attorney's office must sign off on the plan.
As long as the six-month treatment period is completed without further trouble, the summary charges would be dismissed. The charge would be restored in the event a veteran fails to complete treatment.
How it's different
The proposed program for the magisterial court system varies from what's in place in Common Pleas Courts. Those programs are generally a minimum of one year, and while successful completion can keep a veteran out of jail, it won't clear his or her record.
"We can't just remove felony charges," said Noel Jones, coordinator of Northumberland County's five treatment courts, including the one for veterans.
He said the county's veterans court consists of three phases: three months concentrating on the individual through counseling, three months of continued counseling focused on mending strained familial and personal relationships, and six months capitalizing on successful counseling by finding employment and re-establishing the veteran in the community.
Once they graduate, supervision - which includes biweekly visits to the county courthouse - is eased, although participants must continue to comply with any court-ordered probation.
The county program is buoyed by support from the Veterans Administration, which offsets cost by providing counseling and related services. It has also lent its support to the state pilot program.
AOPC reports there are more than 1 million veterans in Pennsylvania. Noel Jones estimates 10 to 12 percent of Northumberland County's approximately 94,500 residents are military veterans. He applied the same percentage estimate to the county's prison population.
So far, so good
Established in October 2011, Northumberland County's first four veterans court participants graduated during a ceremony last month.
There are currently 12 veterans enrolled in the county, all of whom are supervised by a single probation officer. If enrollment tops 25, the caseload would be split among two probation officers, Noel Jones said.
So far, so good, he said.
"We have not had an instance yet where we had to reincarcerate someone from veterans court," he said.
The Magisterial District Judge Diversion program will be monitored continually, Heinz said, and there is no deadline to end the pilot program or determine its merits. He also was unaware of any specific benchmarks that are sought to determine success or failure, and if or when it would be implemented statewide.