June 23, 2013

Editorial: Second chance for veterans


---- — The Drug Courts and Mental Health Courts established in local counties have proven their worth in offering alternative treatment of people living with special challenges.

Now, Essex County will be establishing a Veterans Court — the only one in our area — to deal with former military members who face certain criminal charges or civil action. Charges can be reduced or dropped if the veteran successfully completes the program.

You might be left wondering why they deserve the break.

After all, having substance-abuse or mental-health problems could be seen as handicapping conditions, of sorts, that might call for special treatment. But does being a veteran put someone in that category?

We were skeptical, initially. But Essex County District Attorney Kristy Sprague assures us that Veterans Court is not intended for every former military member but just those who face special obstacles related to their service.

Those conditions might overlap the intent of Drug or Mental Health courts, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or self-medicating with alcohol or drugs to deal with issues. It could be physical impairment, such as a traumatic brain injury. It might be behavioral issues that can be traced to their military service.

Cases involving veterans will be reviewed by a team to see whether they qualify for the special court program. Team members will include Essex County Judge Richard Meyer, law-enforcement personnel, mental-health and substance-abuse experts, a defense attorney, probation and veterans officials and others.

Not all vets will want to be considered for the program, as it is intensive and demanding, with close monitoring of compliance.

But those who do make it through might find themselves with a life changed for the better, as has happened with the local Drug and Mental-Health courts. The Press-Republican has interviewed numerous graduates of those programs over the years, and, though not all succeed, the personal stories of redemption of those who do stand as testimony to the worth of the programs.

An important component of Veterans Court is mentoring. That aspect of the program will be coordinated by Harry Treadway, a combat veteran from Ticonderoga. Sprague said they will try to get representatives from all service branches involved; they will meet one on one with the veterans throughout the process, providing guidance.

Meyer, who will preside over the cases, believes this type of court can have an impact far beyond the veterans themselves. He lobbied for the State Office of Court Administration to allow a Veterans Court to be established in Essex County.

Sometimes crimes have a unseen story — roots that trace to difficult circumstances that had a profound impact on the lives of the people who broke the law.

Sometimes it is a life entwined with drugs or mental illness. Sometimes the mitigating factors are related to time spent in service of our country.

True justice, in those cases, demands compassion. It means helping people change, heal and move forward without their chances being marred by the stain of a crime conviction.

Veterans Court can provide that second chance.