On Saturday, Pennsylvanians joined Americans across the country in taking note of Veterans Day. Not so many, though, concern themselves with a veteran’s day in court.
Locally, those who have served their country have some pretty solid support, beginning with the Lawrence County Veterans Affairs Office and its director, Jesse Putnam. About a year ago, the county also launched a “Thank A Vet” program that provides a free ID to veterans whose discharge is on record with the Register and Recorder of Deeds, enabling them to receive discounts and participating businesses.
There’s an annual Stand Down event, in which social services agency representatives turn out to assist veterans in need with a variety of issues, and Lawrence County Community Action Partnership administers the Regional Veterans Services program to assist vets facing a housing crisis.
Local veterans also have access to a dedicated clinic in the Ridgewood Professional Center on Butler Road, not to mention a brand-new, state-of-the-art health care center in neighboring Butler County.
Still, one thing that the county — and indeed, most of Pennsylvania— lacks is a Veterans Court.
Veterans Courts, according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, assist veterans charged with crimes who are struggling with addiction, mental illness or co-occurring disorders and come in contact with the criminal justice system.
Modeled on the state’s drug court program, “participants come before judges on a regular basis, receive support and guidance from veteran mentors, are supervised by specialized probation officers and receive treatment and support from the Veterans Administration to address underlying problems often caused by post-traumatic stress disorders.” Participation in the veterans court program is on a voluntary basis.
The state’s first veterans court opened in Lackawanna County in 2009. Nearly nine years later, though, only a third of Pennsylvania’s counties have one — this despite the fact that Pennsylvania has the nation’s fourth-highest veterans population in the United States.
Supreme Court Justice Debra Todd, an Ellwood City native who serves as the court’s liaison to Pennsylvania’s veterans courts, noted recently that “out of the more than 2.7 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 20 percent suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression.
Yet only half of these veterans seek treatment.
Others resort to self-medication with drugs and alcohol, which often leads to their involvement with the criminal justice system.”
One-third of America’s homeless are veterans, Todd wrote, and “the majority suffer from substance abuse, mental illness or related disorders. Homeless veterans have a higher prevalence of ending up in the criminal justice system.”
Of the 274 admissions into Pennsylvania veterans courts in 2016, 177 — 74 percent— graduated. According to Todd, “Successful veterans courts boast a reduced recidivism rate, 5 percent to 10 percent, and save countless tax dollars by keeping our veterans out of prison.”
It’s clear that Pennsylvania celebrates and supports its veterans in a variety of important ways. Still, veterans courts would be a strong addition to that menu, and one we hope to see continue to expand.