Veterans who complete intense treatment can have court charges expunged
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Just after noon on the fifth floor of the Allegheny County Courthouse, there was only one item of business left in Judge John Zottola's monthly Veterans Treatment Court.
What would Anthony West -- a 54-year-old Army veteran in court for charges and probation violations related to substance abuse -- be singing that day?
"God Bless America?" suggested a prosecutor. Or perhaps Luther Vandross, which the court had enjoyed in the past? Luther it was, as West started a soaring version of "Never Too Much."
It was an ordinary day in Veterans Court, which is not, suffice to say, your ordinary courtroom.
Judge Zottola has run Veterans Court in Allegheny County since 2009, not long after Buffalo, N.Y., started the first such court in the country. Eligible veterans can avoid jail time or get their charges expunged if they complete an intensive treatment and rehabilitation program.
The environment in the courtroom is compassionate and supportive, with a team of social workers, probation officers, attorneys and other personnel invested in every case.
Even before West stood before Judge Zottola April 11 and pronounced himself 90 days clean, most of the observers in the courtroom knew his story: that he has sung the national anthem at stadiums, that he is currently at an inpatient rehab program at the Butler VA Hospital, that his motivation for staying clean is his seven grandchildren, who climb on him and push open his eyelids and ask, "Pap pap, you awake?"
"This is the perfect setting for us," said West. "This is really one of the lifesavers for the veterans."
Judge Zottola's court and 11 others in the commonwealth run on volunteer power and piecemeal funding from community organizations that pay for certificates of completion. Judges, many veterans themselves, volunteer for the bench. So do mentors who come from veterans organizations.
To buy military flags for the courtroom, Supreme Court Justice Seamus P. McCaffery served drinks at a beef-and-beer fundraiser in Philadelphia.
"It's all voluntary. It's catch as catch can," Justice McCaffery said.
That's no way to fund a program that helps such an important segment of the community, said U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan, R-Philadelphia, who is trying to change that.
Mr. Meehan, a former prosecutor, has introduced a bill that would provide federal funding for the program. He isn't sure how much money is needed but brought the legislation to the table at a recent Appropriations subcommittee meeting aimed at starting the discussion.
He invited Justice McCaffery to testify in Washington, D.C., last month.
"Here's the problem: We have no real designated funding -- nothing," the justice testified. "We need to have something in place so we can make these court programs part of the fabric of justice in Pennsylvania and across the nation."
He had the ear of the subcommittee's chairman, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va.
"I hope it's something we can do," Mr. Wolf said. "It's a great idea. I had not heard of it before."
It's no wonder. Buffalo's program started just four years ago, and Pennsylvania's even more recently. Together there are now 80 veterans treatment courts nationwide, a number that Mr. Meehan and Justice McCaffery want to see grow.
In Pennsylvania, recidivism among program participants is just 1 percent, according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. The statistics are even better in Allegheny County, where Judge Zottola can brag about having no recidivism among veterans whose cases he's heard in treatment court.
Judge Zottola attributes that to discipline participants acquired through military training.
"The training they've had makes it easier for them to adapt to the rules of the program. If you tell them the rules of the game, they'll follow them," he said.
Dennis Rice, a 52-year-old Army veteran, credits the veterans court for helping him to overcome more than a decade of homelessness and crack cocaine addiction.
The program is rigorous: He checks in twice a week with Tom Stokes, the veterans court liaison from the VA, and contacts his probation officer weekly. He has completed an inpatient drug program at the VA domiciliary and a transitional program at Veterans Place of Washington Boulevard.
He now lives at home with his wife, Teresa, in East Liberty and works five days a week in commercial construction.
For this transformation, he credits God and Judge Zottola. "He's very sincere, very compassionate," said Rice, of the judge. "He's a man who understands where another person is coming from."
During court, Judge Zottola applauds the work of the veterans with positive reports, encouraging them to stay clean or to keep attending programs or taking their medications. But for another veteran, a young man who has relapsed after ignoring the advice of one of his team members, he is stern.
"You were given direct advice by someone who was trying to help you and you thumbed your nose," said Judge Zottola, telling him that he can remain in jail for a while longer. "He still has hope for you. We'll see."
Not every veteran is eligible for the program. Participants must have a drug or alcohol dependency issue or must have been diagnosed with a combat-related mental condition such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Their crimes must be misdemeanors and their victims must agree to the alternative court system.
If all that happens, the road ahead isn't easy. The veteran must complete an intensive treatment program, often lasting longer than court-ordered programs in traditional court. The participants are assigned volunteer mentors, fellow veterans, who help ensure they comply with the program.
After treatment, they return to court again and, if the judge determines they've been rehabilitated, the case is discharged without a blemish on the veteran's criminal record.
"A lot of people say 'Why should they get treated better [than other criminals]?' Well, they're not. They're actually having to follow a stricter regimen," Justice McCaffery said in an interview.
"This is not a walk in the park. These men and women are put through an awful lot," he testified.
Mr. Meehan agreed.
"This isn't a get-out-of-jail-free card," he said.
First Published April 22, 2012 12:00 am