Veterans court system expanding

    A joint effort between Pennsylvania and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs provides veterans with access to a court system and health services when they get into legal trouble.

    Already operating in Philadelphia, the program is expanding statewide.

    The Pennsylvania Veterans Justice Program, like a mental health or a drug court, finds veterans in trouble with the law and provides them with social services.

    Tony Coppola, a Vietnam War vet from Pittsburgh, has benefited from the program. When he was convicted of drunken driving, he was put on probation and treated for his drinking problem.

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    Without the program, he said, he might not be alive now.

    “They teach you things and being with all veterans, it helped me out quite a bit,” said Coppola.

    State Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery, a longtime judge in Philadelphia, was instrumental in bringing the alternative to jail time to Pennsylvania. He said it’s also a cost-saving measure for local governments because it takes veterans off their court dockets.

    “They take these people, they’re diverted out of the court, given over to the VA. Whatever their needs may be, Veterans Affairs comes in with federal dollars and takes care of that individual to allow him to get back into society,” said McCaffery.

    For instance, McCaffery said, veterans often don’t seek the treatment necessary to get reacclimated to civilian life.

    “They end up reverting to alcohol, and you find them getting an excessive amount of DUIs, you find them involved in domestic violence, you now see them out there buying street drugs, getting arrested for possession,” he said. “These are the types of individuals charged with misdemeanor crimes that are now being diverted out of the court system into the veterans court programs.”

    More than 650 vets have gone through the program since its inception in 2009.

    Currently up and running in Philadelphia, Allegheny and Lackawanna counties, it could soon begin in Dauphin and York counties.

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