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Lawmakers Push Veterans' Court

By: Kathleen Haughney, The News Service of Florida
By: Kathleen Haughney, The News Service of Florida

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Nov. 23, 2010 --

Lawmakers are testing the waters for a statewide court initiative for certain veterans just as judges in Palm Beach County are directing offenders who served in the armed forces to a veterans-only court docket.

In Okaloosa County, Judge T. Patt Maney has been working a veterans’ docket for more than a year, and last week, Palm Beach County launched its own veterans’ court effort. But Rep. Bryan Nelson, R-Apopka, and Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, are proposing that all Florida court circuits start dealing with veterans with post traumatic stress separately from other offenders.

“I guess there’s a few other states that have them, and golly, why don’t we have one?” Nelson asked about courts specifically for veterans.

Nelson and Bennett, who is a Vietnam veteran, are sponsoring HB 17/SB 138, which directs the state’s courts to create a system where veterans with post traumatic stress disorder are identified through a preliminary screening process and then shuttled to a specific docket where a judge can sentence the veteran to a treatment program, rather than jail time.

“We hope this will help if veterans are in this situation and if they need additional help and if we can trace it back to post traumatic stress disorder, then we ought to treat them differently than a common criminal,” Nelson said.

Veterans’ courts have been catching on nationwide over the past several years. The first veterans’ court was established in Buffalo, NY in January 2008, and according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, there are now 41 similar programs nationwide.

In Palm Beach County, veterans’ advocates and court officials have been working for about the past nine months to create a veteran-specific docket, and last Thursday, Palm Beach County Judge Ted Booras, a former Marine, presided over the first day of veterans’ only cases. Court officials initially only projected three veterans would appear before the judge that day, but ultimately 12 cases were presented to Booras.

“This could be big,” said Florida Council of the Vietnam Veterans of America President Jerry Klein. “As they start identifying men and women going through the system, it could be somewhat overwhelming. We really don’t know.”

Klein, along with fellow veterans’ advocate Ray Foster, reached out to 15th Circuit Court officials, the state attorney’s office and the public defender’s office months ago to begin the process of developing a veterans’ docket after Klein met with Buffalo City Court Judge Robert Russell, who started the Buffalo court in 2008.

Klein, who has worked as a veterans’ service officer for 25 years, said he was meeting veterans every day who were struggling to get their lives in order because of problems with alcohol, drugs, post traumatic stress disorder and other issues with successful reintegration into civilian life traced back to service in combat. The ones who run afoul of the law, he said, need to know there are treatment options available.

“Well, I’m looking back 40 years ago when I was in Vietnam, just coming out of Vietnam,” Klein said. “Those options weren’t available. Nobody knew what post traumatic stress disorder was or was willing to address it.”

Under the system the 15th Circuit Court created, cases directed to Booras would first have to be agreed upon by a prosecutor and defense attorney as a suitable case for the veterans’ docket. Social workers help evaluate the offenders and all veterans who go through the veterans’ docket will be assigned a mentor, who will also most likely have a military background. The treatment and counseling programs to which Booras can assign the veterans will vary, but most will be provided by the local Veterans Administration facility.

“This is a second chance, but there are consequences if people don’t follow the rules,” Klein said.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs, about 7 percent to 8 percent of the general population experiences some form of post traumatic stress disorder. However, for veterans that number is much higher. According to the VA, anywhere from 11 percent to 20 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. For Desert Storm veterans, the number is about 10 percent and for Vietnam veterans, it is about 30 percent.

Neither the Senate nor House bill have been assigned to committees yet, but Bennett, who is the Senate President Pro Tempore, has considerable sway, which could ensure smooth passage through the legislative process. David Bishop, a spokesman for Senate President Mike Haridopolos, maintained that the legislative session will be a “member-driven process” rather than one that favors bills supported by the Senate president.

The bill will likely have significant supporters though, including the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs. The Florida Supreme Court likely will also be involved.

“The Court and the Office of the State Courts Administrator are aware of the proposal and are looking forward to working with the Legislature on it,” said Supreme Court spokesman Craig Waters.


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