Veterans having trouble adjusting to civilian life who get into brushes with the law can get some help through a new program offered by Somerset County’s magisterial district courts.
Military veterans facing summary offenses such as disorderly conduct or harassment can be given the option of supervised treatment to avoid jail or fines.
“The charges would be dismissed at the end of a successful six-month treatment period,” District Judge Susan Mankmyer said in a press release. “If a defendant doesn’t comply with the terms of the program, the charges would be restored.”
Somerset’s is the third magisterial-level veterans’ program in the state.
“As soon as I heard that this program was available for veterans in Somerset County, I wanted to look further into it,” Mankmyer said. “All the district judges and our president judge, John Cascio, are wholeheartedly behind this.”
Pennsylvania has the fifth-highest concentration of veterans in the country, with more than 1 million living here, Mankmyer said.
“What we hope to do here is divert the veterans who have encounters with law enforcement into treatment – before their problems escalate to behaviors that would result in more harm to themselves or others,” Mankmyer said.
“It’s the least we can do after all they have done for our country.”
Veterans’ Courts at the county level have proven to reduce the number of repeat offenders, said Bonnie Clark, justice outreach coordinator at James E. Van Zandt VA Medical Center in Altoona. About 70 percent who successfully complete the required treatment do not get arrested again, she said.
“We think it should be just as successful (at the lower-court level), because we get them into treatment earlier,” Clark said. “We are very excited about it.”
She commended Somerset’s district judges for taking the lead to establish the program.
“The start of it really came from the people in Somerset County,” Clark said. “I just provided information when they needed it.”
Tom Caufield, director of Veteran Community Initiatives in Upper Yoder Township, said Cambria County’s veterans court has proven its worth. He is looking forward to Somerset’s program.
“I think it has tremendous value,” Caulfield said. “It gives them a chance to benefit from the treatment. It makes them whole again.”
Randy Griffith covers health care for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/photogriffer57.