New Western Pa. veterans court may offer better judicial solution

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Military veterans who run afoul of federal laws stand to get more intensive help with housing, health and other challenges under a program announced Wednesday and meant to start following Veterans Day this month.

The Veterans Treatment Court will kick in once the court becomes aware that a defendant has served in the military, said U.S. Attorney David Hickton. He said estimates predict around 10 percent of federal criminal defendants in Western Pennsylvania are veterans.

For certain veterans, there may be optional diversion of the court process to a less contentious track that would lead to a limited period of supervision, followed by a clearing of the defendant's record.

As offenders who were veterans move from prison to probation, and under a judge's supervision, prosecutors, public defenders, probation officers and Veterans Affairs outreach professionals will collaborate to make the return to society successful.

According to Keather L. Likins, an outreach specialist for the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, they'll ask questions like: "Was there a mental health issue and was that issue a result of their combat service or service in general?" The veteran will be directed to sources of help, monitored by probation officers and mentored by fellow veterans.

Mr. Likins said the new court emerges from "a national push through the Supreme Court to look at justice-involved veterans ... not to give them get-out-of-jail-free cards, but to address the situations that have gotten them involved in the criminal justice system."

U.S. District Chief Judge Gary Lancaster designated fellow federal judges Mark Hornak in Pittsburgh and Kim Gibson in Erie to help develop and operate the program.

The same federal court agencies have, in the past month, discussed a similar, 2-year-old Rise Into Society Effort, or RISE Court, designed to give supervision and help to offenders with substance abuse problems.

The Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas also has a veteran-focused court.

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