BY Michael Zeigler
Monroe County Court Judge Patricia D. Marks can sometimes tell if criminal defendants appearing before her are military veterans.
"More often than not, they're the ones who pull themselves straight and answer 'yes ma'am' and 'no ma'am,'" she said.
Beginning today, some veterans who are accused of crimes will be able to use their military service to help them resolve the trouble they're in.
Marks, who already presides over Drug Treatment Court and Mental Health Court at the Hall of Justice, will take the bench this afternoon on the first day of the new Veterans Court, which is aimed at veterans who commit nonviolent crimes.
Modeled after a similar court in Buffalo, which began a year ago and was the first of its kind in the nation, Veterans Court will steer veterans to services designed just for them — from drug and alcohol treatment to housing assistance, employment services and therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder — while the criminal case against them is put on hold.
Veterans who successfully complete the programs they need can expect a break on the criminal charge, ranging from a dismissal to a reduced sentence, depending on the circumstances of the crime and their record.
Although the court has no age limit for veterans, it's getting under way in time to help younger veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Greg McClune, a clinical case worker at the Veterans Outreach Center of Rochester, which will provide services to the veterans and is the oldest community-based veterans outreach center in the nation.
"We have seen the age of the veterans we serve kind of drop," McClune said. "The youngest veteran we've had was 19, a combat veteran of Iraq."
The court is aimed at veterans who have committed such offenses as burglary, larceny, shoplifting, criminal mischief and possession of weapons or drugs. Its intent is to help veterans deal with underlying problems that led them to commit crimes, such as a drug addiction that compels them to steal, so they don't commit new crimes.
"We know that treatment helps reduce recidivism," Marks said.
"Veterans are a unique population," said Alisa Parmiter, manager of public relations and special events at the Veterans Outreach Center. "They don't commit these crimes just to commit them. The things they experienced while serving may have affected them to the extent that they turn to drugs and alcohol."
The court is being funded with a two-year, $263,939 grant from the federal Bureau of Justice Administration.
The court is patterned after two other local problem-solving courts — Drug Treatment Court, which began in 1995, and Mental Health Court, which was established in 2003.
The road to Veterans Court will begin after those who are arrested for nonviolent crimes are interviewed before their arraignment to determine if they're veterans. They'll be asked if they're interested in participating in the court.
If they agree and are accepted, the charges will be put on hold while they're enrolled in programs to address their needs. They'll report back to the court regularly. If they succeed in their programs, they'll be rewarded. If not, their prosecution resumes.
But getting veterans in some cases to acknowledge that they served has been a problem, Drug Treatment Court workers have found when they asked new clients whether they were veterans.
"One of the biggest problems in Drug Treatment Court was identifying who was a veteran," McClune said. "Often, in the initial intakes that the court would do, they would ask a client, 'Are you a veteran?' A significant number would answer 'no' because they weren't in combat or they didn't have an honorable discharge or they were in the reserves or the National Guard. Once we changed the question ... to 'Have you served in the military?' the numbers jumped."
Marks said she expects to begin with about 25 veterans who have already been screened. Eventually, the court could handle up to 150 veterans, she said.
McClune said he hopes to "find out that there's more than I can handle. My goal is to get all of them," he said. "I would much rather deal with a veteran in Veterans Court who got busted for possession of a controlled substance than to see him come back years later with a manslaughter charge. Hopefully, by getting to him early, we can prevent that."