Allegheny County plans court for veterans


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As a former Navy Seabee, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Michael E. McCarthy knows the difficulty of coming home.

Civilian life was jarring when he returned from Vietnam in 1971, but he avoided the perils of alcoholism and drug abuse and found comfort and camaraderie with other vets. It wasn't an official diagnosis then, but post-traumatic stress disorder struck many a returning warrior.

After a successful legal career that has led him to the civil division of Common Pleas Court, Judge McCarthy vowed to aid less fortunate vets and has been the driving force behind establishing a specialized veterans' court, which officials hope to have up and running this year.

"This is an opportunity for me to give back, for me to serve," he said.

The judge already has done everything from traveling to Buffalo, N.Y., to examine the first veterans' court to soliciting state funding.

Modeled after the county's mental health court, veterans' court would provide veterans charged with nonviolent crimes a chance to avoid jail time by entering treatment programs under strict supervision. So many returning servicemen and women face mental health and substance abuse problems that it makes sense to bring their cases to a place where their challenges are better understood, officials said.

In Buffalo, Judge Robert Russell's Tuesday afternoon court started about a year ago and is set to "graduate" its first class of eight veterans this week, said program manager Hank Pirowski.

The defendants are matched up with volunteer veteran mentors, and there's a representative from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in the courtroom.

Defendants who follow their prescribed program, which includes treatment and, in many cases, drug and alcohol screenings, stay out of jail. They are ordered to return to court for regular reviews, and Mr. Pirowski said the veterans show up about 99 percent of the time.

It's similar to Allegheny County's other problem-solving court programs -- for DUI, drugs, prostitution and mental health -- that emphasize treatment over punishment.

Common Pleas Judge John A. Zottola, who runs mental health court, said he will convene a task force this month to work out the details of veterans' court.

The usual court personnel will be joined by representatives from the Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania, which helps link veterans with government services.

Oftentimes, it takes a brush with the law to show veterans the kinds of treatment and services available to them -- and it takes a fellow veteran to make them take advantage of it.

"Some vets think it's a sign of weakness to ask for help," Judge McCarthy said.

Many veterans, as a result, battle their problems alone and end up being arrested on charges ranging from domestic abuse to stealing to feed an addiction.

Jim McGuire, who is in charge of the VA's Veterans' Justice Outreach program, said veterans form about 10 percent of the nation's jail and prison population. Of those vets, about two-thirds have substance abuse problems and one-fifth are homeless, Mr. McGuire said.

Mr. McGuire said 10 to 15 court systems in the nation have called him about establishing veterans' courts, and only a handful are now operating. Allegheny County's veterans' court would be the first in the state.

It's gotten a push from the state Supreme Court, where Justice Seamus P. McCaffery and Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille are both veterans. But the program still could use a financial boost.

State Rep. Don Walko, D-North Side, chair of the judicial subcommittee on courts, said he will seek a community development grant of $25,000 to help fund a case manager for veterans' court.

And if it is passed, the Services, Education and Rehabilitation for Veterans Act, introduced in the U.S. Senate by Navy veteran John Kerry, D-Mass., would provide federal funding to veterans' courts.

Though funds can be hard to come by these days, diversionary courts have shown to be money-saving in the long run by reducing the jail population.

Also, programs for veterans have proven popular with lawmakers and the public, in recognition of the trials suffered by soldiers during America's lengthy engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"It's about treatment, which is what veterans have earned," said Al Mercer, executive director of the Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania. "They've earned the care from their service and sacrifice."


Daniel Malloy can be reached at dmalloy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1731.


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