by Chief Judge Lee E. Haworth
In the past our courts have not been very attentive to the needs of veterans returning from foreign wars. Service members with post traumatic stress, substance abuse or family readjustment issues have been processed through the criminal justice system without receiving the full benefit of services available through the VA or our local community based agencies. In anticipation of the drawdown in troop levels announced by the Obama administration, and to be ready for a reverse surge of service members into our community, the Twelfth Circuit has created the Courts Assisting Veterans program.
The goal of CAV is to identify early those vets in need of services and to construct special pre-trial release conditions and customized sentencing alternatives that will have the best potential for reducing recidivism. Many of the features are modeled after those found in a veterans’ court implemented by a judge in Buffalo, NY. However, due to the lack of resources as well as potential clients, our program will not be a true veterans’ court. Instead, we will be modifying current procedures to achieve similar goals, including referral of individuals to our existing drug court and mental health programs.
Assisting with implementation of CAV are the three sheriffs, the state attorney, public defender, pretrial services, the VA, and our private social service agencies. The office of the public defender will have a key role in finding appropriate programs for eligible service members. Larry Eger and Earl Moreland have agreed to work together to establish procedures that will protect the public and allow veterans to effectively participate in the program.
To support the program, Walt Smith, Trial Court Administrator, applied for and received a grant from the Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice. The grant will pay the salary of a case manager for calendar year 2010. Scott Driscoll, a National Guard Military Police platoon sergeant and Afghan war veteran, has been hired for this position. One of his duties will be to recruit veterans to volunteer as mentors for each service member entering the justice system. The mentors will be asked to help defendants negotiate the VA bureaucracy, see they make their attorney and court appointments, and monitor their attendance at court ordered programs.
Attorneys who are veterans, or who know of others willing to serve as mentors, are urged to contact Scott Driscoll at court administration. Members of the bar who practice criminal law will want to become knowledgeable of the array of services available to service members so they can propose customized negotiated pleas most useful to their clients. To assist with this, the circuit will be developing a webpage identifying the key agencies and providing contact information. To our knowledge, this is the first program in the state. We are hopeful CAV will become a model for other circuits and that it will provide a valuable service to those who have made sacrifices for all of us.