By Mike Cronin
Allegheny County judges hope to set up the state's first court devoted to military veterans who get into trouble with the law.
Veterans court would provide options such as counseling and medical treatment -- instead of jail time -- for veterans who commit misdemeanors, said Common Pleas Judge Michael E. McCarthy, a county civil judge.
"This would help veterans who have suffered difficulties due to their military service," said McCarthy, 58, who served as a Navy Seabee during the Vietnam War. Those difficulties could include post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol and drug addiction, he said.
Such alternative courts are aimed at nonviolent offenders whose violations stem from mental illness, substance abuse, or in the case of veterans, PTSD. Instead of incarceration, they offer treatment programs to tackle the underlying causes of criminal behavior.
Allegheny County set up a mental health court in 2001 that places mentally ill people charged with nonviolent crimes with community social services.
The rate of repeat offenders goes down when people participate in alternative courts, said Amy Kroll, director of justice-related services in the county Department of Human Services.
"Alternative courts give individuals a way to recover their lives," Kroll said. "The answer is treatment, treatment and more treatment."
A 2007 RAND Corp. study of the county mental health court showed that only 14 percent of participants committed a crime after going through the program. The recidivism rate for the general population of inmates is 67 percent, the report said.
Alternative courts can save taxpayers money, too. A 2003 National Institute of Justice study that compared a drug court in Multnomah County, Ore., to criminal adjudication showed the drug-court model saved the public more than $2,300 per year for each participant.
The VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System could provide care, if necessary, and fellow veterans would serve as mentors to those appearing before the court, McCarthy said.
"That way, rather than just be adjudicated, we can try to address the problem," McCarthy said. "And veterans seem to respond to each other."
Some of the mentors will come from the Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania in the South Side.
"We're going to call on some of those we've assisted through the years to come back and help those that need their help right now," said Albert Mercer, the leadership program's executive director.
Officials in Erie County, N.Y., started what they believe to be the nation's first veterans court a year ago, said acting Erie County Judge Robert Russell. Others now exist in Anchorage, Alaska; Orange County, Calif.; and Tulsa, Okla.
"We took the approach that if we have a judicially oversighted treatment program, maybe we can change their behavior -- get them clean and sober and become productive members of society instead of a burden on society," Russell said.
It's too early for any data to exist on the effectiveness of veterans courts, Russell said.
Karen Blackburn, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's coordinator for problem-solving courts in Harrisburg, visited Russell's court in Buffalo with McCarthy. The Allegheny County program could serve as a statewide model, she said.
State Rep. Don Walko, D-North Side, said he requested a $25,000 state grant to fund a case manager for the veterans court "who will help them get into the right treatment programs."
The first step is to set up a task force and determine a method to identify defendants who are veterans, said Common Pleas Judge John A. Zottola, a criminal judge who presides over the county's mental health court. He said he hopes to have the program running by June.