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January 5, 2013

Cambria forms court for vets

EBENSBURG — Cambria County’s criminal justice system is ready to offer a helping hand to veterans who have gotten into trouble with the law because of problems stemming from their service.

President Judge Timothy Creany and District Attorney Kelly Callihan, at a news conference on Friday, unveiled a new county veterans court that has the goal of getting the veterans into treatment programs that could be an alternative to incarceration.

Hopefully, those men and women accepted into the program “will be able to return to a healthy lifestyle” and be productive citizens, Creany said.

The judge said that not only veterans, but also men and women on active duty could be accepted into the program.

Both Creany and Callihan said the program is not “a get out of jail free pass,” but rather a way to get the veterans into intensive treatment while getting support from other veterans who volunteer to be “peer mentors.”

About two dozen people, including veterans, officeholders and representatives of the Altoona VA Medical Center and the Veterans Community Initiatives, attended the news conference at the courthouse.

Callihan said that veterans who commit violent crimes or serious felony offenses will not be eligible for the program, which has two “tracks.”

One track is a diversionary program for first-time offenders, who will be able to work to have charges against them dismissed, the district attorney said.

The other track is for those who may have prior criminal records. Their participation will be determined on a case-by-case basis, she said. Those defendants accepted into the program would enter a guilty plea and work toward lowering the criminal offense against them, she said.

“There are safeguards, with the police and victims having a ‘say,’ ” on whether defendants should be accepted into the program, Callihan said.

Most of the veterans accepted into the program here likely will be in drunken driving cases, petty thefts and less serious crimes, she said. Some may be from domestic violence cases where the wife wants to save the marriage, she said.

“If we can help one vet, it will be well worth the effort. This is for any veteran, not just combat veterans. We owe them. We should give back to them if they are facing situations in which they need help,” Callihan said.

Creany, who is a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War, talked movingly about trying to find a way to help a defendant who is a Marine Corps reservist facing a DUI offense.

Because the defendant was a repeat DUI offender, the reservist – who had served two tours of duty in Iraq and two tours in Afghanistan – was facing dishonorable discharge and loss of all benefits. Without going into details, the judge indicated that a way had been found to help that defendant, who had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The program will be open to older veterans who may have problems stemming from their service in the Vietnam War and Korean War, it was noted.

Creany will be the presiding judge in the veterans court, with Chief Deputy District Attorney Scott Little as the prosecutor and Maribeth Schaffer the public defender.  Richard Rok is the county probation officer assigned to the program.

The treatment programs will be arranged with the Altoona VA Hospital, it was reported.

The program took months to develop, with a study group reviewing other veterans courts in Pennsylvania and making a visit to Allegheny County court to view the one there.

Cambria has one of the highest veteran populations in the state – 15.7 percent, Creany said.

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