June 17, 2014

House, Senate Bills Propose Statewide Veterans Courts System

Rep. Ryan A. Bizzarro (D-Erie) and Sen. Rob Teplitz (D-Dauphin) Tuesday emphasized the need to further support Pennsylvania veterans by establishing veterans courts statewide.
Rep. Bizzarro’s House Bill 2180 and Teplitz’s Senate Bill 1411 (not yet online) would institute a specialized veterans court in any Pennsylvania county that does not have one. Any existing veterans court would be permitted to continue.
“With nearly 1 million veterans, Pennsylvania has one of the largest veteran populations in the country. However, only 17 counties have taken the lead and set up their own veterans courts,” Rep. Bizzarro said. “It’s time to expand these important services throughout the commonwealth so that no veteran is left behind.”
Under the voluntary program, veterans struggling with addiction, mental illness or similar conditions and charged with nonviolent crimes plead guilty to their charges. In turn, participants receive rehabilitative treatment and are supervised by specialized judges and probation officers. These veterans may also work with volunteer veteran mentors who can identify with their various struggles, which can include post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Many veterans, in particular those who served in combat, experience a very unique trauma that stays with them long after they leave the battlefield. As a new crop of veterans returns home from war in the Middle East, we are seeing a rise in the need to address mental health issues for this population. If left untreated, these issues can lead them down a path that puts them in the criminal justice system,” Sen. Teplitz said. “This legislation would provide veterans who have been charged with a nonviolent crime with access to a system specifically designed to get them the help they need.”
If a judge decides a participating veteran has been properly rehabilitated, charges will be dismissed without a blemish on the veteran’s criminal record.
“In counties that have already established veterans courts, recidivism rates among veterans have decreased,” Rep. Bizzarro said. “These programs have also significantly reduced judicial costs, proving just how valuable they are both to veterans and to our communities on the whole.”
“Our service men and women have made tremendous sacrifices to defend our freedom,” Sen. Teplitz said. “We must ensure that the proper services are in place to protect and assist them when they return, including the justice system.”