Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Military & Veterans Affairs Committee: The Military Veterans Treatment Court

By Bob Nader and Lt. Col. Christopher Brown

“And silence sounds no worse than cheers … after earth has stopped the ears.”

One may be tenderly reminded of A.E. Housman’s immortal To An Athlete Dying Young when visiting the courtroom of the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit’s Veterans Treatment Court to observe military veterans of our community who dutifully served their country stand at the bar, approach the bench, and reveal their stories. Once superbly trained and courageous as any celebrated athlete, if not more so, these proud veterans of the Afghan and Gulf Wars and the Vietnam conflict of two generations ago have entered upon hard times. With spirit bent but not unbroken, they now step before presiding Judge Richard Weis and bravely commit to the conditions of the 12-month voluntary treatment program afforded to these soldiers of now lesser fortune with a renewed opportunity for redemption.

 During the four years of World War II, 11.2 percent of the nation's population was actively engaged in some form of military service. During the Vietnam era of over a decade, 4.3 percent of the nation's population served. However, since 2001, only 0.45 percent of our population has served in the Global War on Terror. Hence, our nation has now asked the relative few to sacrifice in defending our country.  And many of these men and women volunteers return home altered of body and spirit, suffering from military-service-related mental illness, traumatic brain injury, substance abuse disorder, or psychological issues, resulting in offenses, charges brought, and criminal arrests. How can a community give back to its veterans in need? One way our judicial system is giving back is through Veterans Treatment Courts.

The Veterans Treatment Court of Hillsborough County (VTC) was established through a collaborative effort involving Chief Judge Manuel Menendez Jr.; the judges of Hillsborough County; the Offices of the State Attorney and Public Defender; the Offices of the Court Administrator and Clerk of the Court; state and federal Departments of Veterans Affairs; numerous veterans service organizations; and other civilian and military community partners. Through the VTC, veterans enter a misdemeanor diversion program where they accept treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and other providers in lieu of criminal prosecution.

After signing a participant agreement that outlines the duties of the veteran charged and the consequences of failing to comply, the would-be criminal defendant, upon acceptance into the program, is assessed and by court order given an appropriate treatment plan that is implemented using existing VA assistance packages and protocols the veteran may not have known existed or may have had trouble accessing in the past. The ultimate goal is to rehabilitate the veteran through proper diagnosis and treatment, to preclude further involvement in the justice system, and to protect the public. Upon fulfillment of those responsibilities and completion of the extended program, the veteran graduates, receives a certificate of success, and has his or her record favorably resolved.

The VTC currently adjudicates certain specified misdemeanor offenses set out in an administrative order. In the near future, the VTC will incorporate provisions of the T. Patt Maney Veterans’ Treatment Intervention Act enacted by the Florida Legislature, resulting in a significant increase in the number of veterans entering the treatment programs the court is designed to administer. As Chief Judge Menendez commented, “With the support of our criminal justice partners and the VA, we (the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit) are in the process of expanding our VTC to handle felony cases. Judge Weis has done a yeoman’s job for the past two years initiating our misdemeanor cases, and we are now preparing to offer eligible veterans charged with certain felony offenses the opportunity to participate in the same treatment program without compromising the safety of the public.”

In addition to the treatment plan ordered, the VTC also operates by using existing court staff and additional outside resources to mentor the veterans before the court. The mentoring coordinator, Col. (Ret.) D.J. Reyes, and other veterans serve as volunteer mentors providing supportive roles in the process. Jarred Miller, who is the VA liaison to the VTC, determines available benefits and coordinates treatment and counseling services through applicable VA programs. 

As a part of its mission, the Mentoring Subcommittee of the HCBA’s Military & Veterans Affairs Committee (MVAC) is spearheading an effort to place additional volunteer mentors at the request of the VTC to act as a “battle buddy” or role model to the veterans in the program. It may be as simple as talking to your protégé about his or her progress in the program or upcoming milestones or securing feedback from the VA representatives and other support personnel with whom you may interface to determine the veteran’s status of achievement. You would then accompany the veteran at the semi-monthly court appearance intervals to provide input and the affirmative directions being taken by the veteran during the course of the program.

You are invited to get involved with this meaningful HCBA committee and become a mentor. As Judge Menendez envisions for the future, “We look forward to working with MVAC in this effort to enhance our Veterans Treatment Court, which has proven very successful in other communities.”