Delaware County wants to start veterans court

    A Delaware County task force will look into creating a veterans’ treatment court.

    Eligible vets would be diverted from criminal prosecution into special courts that provide mental-health support, substance-abuse treatment and job placement.

    Congressman Patrick Meehan, who represents much of Delaware County, says vets who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder may not be flagged for treatment until they are standing before a judge.

    One in five returning soldiers is diagnosed with PTSD. Meehan says these services are even more necessary as troops return home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

    “I think it’s going to increase the demand for services just like this. I think we’re going to have an expectation that more of the military who are returning, who will have been on repetitive tours, are probably manifesting some aspect of this,” Meehan said Monday. “And so, as we’re drawing down more troops, there’s going to be a greater demand on our system.”

    The courts could also save the county money. For example, if a vet is charged with drug possession, he now may be ordered to receive mental health and substance abuse treatment. “That treatment will be on the dime of the county itself,” says Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery, a veteran and advocate for veterans courts.

    Under a new system, this vet would be sent to a separate court, the case will likely be heard by a veteran judge, with veteran staff members and mentors. And the Department of Veterans Affairs will pick up the tab for those support services.

    Since January, 145 military veterans have entered the criminal justice system as defendants in Delaware County. Imagine half might be eligible for these courts, says McCaffery,

    “That’s 75 individuals that may need different social support that are no longer going to be paid for by the people of Delaware County. So it’s a win-win for the county, it’s a win-win for us as a society to give back to our veterans,” he said. “And last, but not least, it also helps to eliminate a lot of the overcrowding we’re seeing both in the jails and in the courthouses.”

    Critics say these programs treat veterans differently. But McCaffery says most vets were not in trouble before serving and many return with PTSD or mental illness.

    “We are treating them differently because we feel an obligation to not treat them like any other criminal because these individuals who suffer from PTSD were absolutely healthy people when they went into our military,” he said. “As a result of their service to our nation, they come down with mental illness.”

    Find more coverage of the Veterans Court Program at WHYY’s Impact of War series.

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