BY LOHR McKINSTRY
---- — ELIZABETHTOWN — Essex County will soon have a Veterans Court helping military veterans who run afoul of the criminal-justice system.
The State Office of Court Administration has approved one for Essex County, County District Attorney Kristy Sprague said Monday.
She told the County Board of Supervisors Public Safety Committee that it will be a specialized treatment court, like the Drug Court they now use to help people with substance-abuse problems.
“We have finally been able to establish a Veterans Court, which is a great feat,” Sprague said. “People are donating a lot of their time.”
The idea behind a Veterans Court is to give veterans in the judicial system a second chance so they can get their lives back, she said.
Although veterans courts have been used in other areas of the state, this will be the first one in the region.
The court is charged with trying offenses involving veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces, particularly those diagnosed with service-related illnesses.
The first veterans court was established in 2008 in Buffalo and has been used as a model for others.
ALSO CIVIL CASES
Sprague said they’re in the process of starting a mentoring program for those who appear before the Veterans Court, and County Judge Richard Meyer will preside over the specialized court.
“A big part of it will be the screening process and making sure they (police) ask the right questions: ‘Have you ever served in the armed forces?’” Sprague said.
She said Ticonderoga Town Police are doing that now, and State Police and other law-enforcement agencies operating in the county will be asked to do so as well.
Meyer told supervisors the Veterans Court will also handle civil cases.
“Our Veterans Court is not going to be limited solely to criminal cases. Veterans may be involved in custody proceedings, even child abuse and neglect cases,” he said. “We’re trying to cast a wide net to catch as many veterans as possible and their families.
“There’s a great impact (of this) beyond veterans.”
Meyer said cases will be referred to Veterans Court only with the consent of the defendant.
Serious charges will preclude an applicant from being accepted in the program, among them murder, manslaughter and rape.
While in the program, each veteran must attend weekly therapy and, usually, counseling for post-traumatic stress. Urinalysis will be conducted at random at a medical facility.
Representatives from the U.S. Veterans Administration, District Attorney’s Office, Public Defender’s Office, treatment facilities and Probation Department will be in attendance at every hearing.
Charges can be reduced or dropped if the veteran successfully completes the treatment program, the judge said.
“If you go to Veterans Court, you have the possibility, although it’s not guaranteed, to have that misdemeanor charge vacated if you successfully complete the program,” Meyer said.
“We can provide a full range of services: Social Services, Public Health, Probation (departments). Probation provides an extra layer of support. There is a benefit.”
Participation in the program consists of intensive supervision from the County Probation Department and the court.
Meyer said an informational meeting on Veterans Court will likely be held at the County Public Safety Committee session in August.
The court’s mentor coordinator will be Harry Treadway of Ticonderoga. Each participant will be given a mentor to work one on one with throughout the process, he said.
“We’re still in the formation process,” Meyer said. “We have to get mentors — that’s a key component.”
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