After more than two years laying the groundwork, Cambria County has announced a separate court to deal with veterans who have broken laws.
Its aim is to get veterans who qualify into treatment programs as alternatives to incarceration.
We applaud that and other efforts – and all people – willing to help improve the lot of deserving veterans, as well as others, who have run afoul of the law. Putting non-violent criminals behind bars willy-nilly must end, regardless if they are veterans of our armed forces.
Just last week, John Wetzel, secretary of the state Department of Corrections, announced that his agency ended the past calendar year with a population of 51,184 inmates, a decrease of 454 prisoners from 2011.
It was the largest one-year drop in the state’s prison population since 1971, and only the third time in the past 40 years that the population has shown an annual decrease rather than an increase.
“Our declining inmate population shows that we are on the right track to improving our corrections system,” Wetzel said.
It’s about time. The corrections system, including sentencing guidelines and procedures, are long overdue for revamping.
In announcing Cambria’s Veterans Court last week, President Judge Timothy Creany said that, hopefully, those men and women accepted into the new program “will be able to return to a healthy lifestyle” and be productive citizens.
That’s something we all can support, but not just for veterans. Building
more prisons to put more people behind bars isn’t working, including from a taxpayer standpoint.
Judge Creany said that not only veterans, but also men and women on active duty could be accepted into the program. Treatment will be arranged
with Altoona’s James E. Van Zandt VA Medical Center.
As we would expect, those who commit violent crimes or serious felonies will not be eligible for Veterans Court.
Peer mentors, veterans themselves, are being recruited and will be trained to assist the troubled vets. We urge willing volunteers to come forward.
Leading the study group for the new court initiative were Judge Creany and District Attorney Kelly Callihan. Key in the process was a trip to view Allegheny County’s setup. Allegheny is one of 15 counties in Pennsylvania operating a Veterans Court.
“Allegheny County has a great program and those folks were very helpful,” said Tom Caulfield of Veteran Community Initiatives, another organizer and huge supporter of the program.
VCI, impressed with the judge’s initiatives in starting a program in Cambria County, named the jurist its Veteran of the Year for 2012.
Caulfield also was high in his praise for the DA’s involvement.
Cambria, Judge Creany said, has one of the highest veteran populations in the state at 15.7 percent.
While we wish administrators of Veterans Court much success, we’ll be watching, along with others, to make sure the program, as promised, will not be “a get out of jail free pass.”
Editor’s note: A related column by Tom Caulfield appears elsewhere on this page.