House committees conduct joint hearing on veterans courts

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Barrar committee hears testimony on needs of vets; Chester County among only 7 counties with special courts

At a joint hearing of the House Judiciary and Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness committees, Reps. Ron Marsico (left) and Steve Barrar (center), majority chairmen of the respective committees, listened to testimony about the need for a veterans court system in Pennsylvania.

RADNOR – At a joint hearing of the House Judiciary and Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness committees held at the Valley Forge Military Academy and College last week, Reps. Ron Marsico (R-Dauphin) and Stephen E. Barrar (R-Chester/Delaware — including Chadds Ford, Birmingham and Pocopson in the Unionville area), majority chairmen of the respective committees, led a discussion about the need for a veterans court system in Pennsylvania.

“We have so many veterans coming home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress, and it is vital for us to help our veterans – our heroes – to recover, rather than to simply write them off to incarceration,” Barrar said.  “When our nation needed them, our military personnel answered the call to serve.  It is our duty to ensure that these veterans are not abandoned at their time of need.”

To view Barrar’s video comments about the legislation, visit SteveBarrar.com or YouTube.com/RepBarrar.

“The idea of using treatment-based alternatives to traditional courts is nothing new in our country and Pennsylvania.  However, only recently have we come to the realization that many veterans have paid a heavy price for their service and have had their lives, and in too many cases, their family’s lives severely impacted after being discharged.  We need to do something to rectify this problem,” said Marsico.  “In fact, we do a disservice to their service if we don’t recognize their unique set of issues and help them accordingly.  We have an obligation to provide the help our veterans deserve and have earned through their great sacrifices.”

To view Marsico’s video comments about the legislation, visit RonMarsico.com or YouTube.com/RepMarsico.

Supreme Court Justice Seamus P. McCaffery, a 40-year veteran of the United States Marine Corps and former Philadelphia police officer, spoke about the connection between crime, mental illness, homelessness and military service.

“Too many of our veterans are in jail,” said McCaffery.  “Mental illness is one of the great problems of our society.  The federal government provides us with the money we need to get these veterans back on track.  The Veterans Administration helps to evaluate the individuals to determine what services they need.  These individuals are then taken off county prison rolls and treated by the VA.  Not only is this a financial benefit to the Commonwealth, but, more importantly, it also helps the men and women who have served this nation and it works.  No veteran should be left behind.”

Among other participants in the hearing, Wesley Payne, co-chairman of the Military and Veteran Affairs Committee of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, testified about the special needs of veterans who are facing criminal charges due to mental health and substance abuse issues.

Wayne noted that the percentage of veterans suffering from mental illness, substance abuse and homelessness warrants a dedicated court system to contend with the specific needs of veterans because the courts would take a holistic approach to address both the crime and the underlying issues, leading veterans to receive treatment.

Of the more than 23 million U.S. veterans, one in five reports symptoms of mental health problems, while one in four veterans under the age of 25 suffer from substance abuse, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.  More than 80 percent of all adjudicated veterans are identified as substance abusers.

Lt. Col. Stephen Miller, Esq., director of the Pennsylvania Veterans Museum Law Clinic, testified about the need for the General Assembly to provide monetary support for veterans courts, pointing to the success stories in Illinois and Texas.  Miller noted that now is an appropriate time to codify veteran court policies, with the Iraq War winding down and the draw down in Afghanistan approaching.

“Not all combat wounded veterans need a wheelchair or a prosthetic limb,” said Miller.  “Many of their wounds are less obvious, but no less significant.  Post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries have a profound impact on the psyche and behavior of veterans.  It is vital that veterans are adjudicated in a system that considers the effects of war on a veteran’s stateside conduct.”

A 2009 article published in the U.S. News and World Report states, “The Pentagon’s latest estimates suggest that up to 20 percent of U.S. troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered brain injuries. Also, with more soldiers serving multiple combat tours, the incidence of PTSD is getting higher.”

Brian Courtney, a previously homeless veteran, testified about how his experience with the Philadelphia Veterans Court gave him a profound hope for his life and attributes the court’s guidance to his escaping a cycle of homelessness, incarceration and addiction.

Judge Patrick Dugan, of the Philadelphia Municipal Court and a captain in the Army Reserves, spoke about the challenge judges face in the courtroom to get through to defendants and how he is able to reach the veterans who come before him.  Dugan noted how busy criminal courts are and how the veterans court affords him the opportunity to treat those who come before him as more than a number, but with the dignity they deserve as those who have served our nation.  He also spoke about the need for mentors to assist in reducing the rates of recidivism.

Counties are permitted by Pennsylvania law to establish “problem-solving” courts with diversionary programs to handle cases involving alcohol, substance abuse, veterans and other specialized areas.  While several counties are currently considering establishing veterans courts, those counties with operational veterans courts include:

Allegheny
Berks
Chester
Lackawanna
Lancaster
Montgomery
Philadelphia

Testifiers advocated for the state to take action to codify a veterans court system for the Commonwealth, with a dedicated funding stream, citing available money from the federal government.

Judge William Furber Jr., a judge on the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas and veteran of the U.S. Navy, portrayed veterans courts as an opportunity for participants to turn their lives around.

“The most difficult task a soldier will ever face is returning home,” said Furber, quoting Jeremiah Underhill in his article “Up to the Challenge,” published in the Pennsylvania Lawyer.  “Soldiers are trained to do amazing deeds under extreme conditions, but re-acclimation into the community and with family is an immense challenge.  Mentors for troubled veterans are so important because the mentor understands the military culture and can identify and bond with the individual.  The veteran does not want to let his or her mentor down and commits to the program, leading to success.”

Other House members who participated in the hearing included Reps. Bryan Barbin (D-Cambria), Thomas R. Caltagirone (D-Berks), Tom Creighton (R-Lancaster), Tina Davis (D-Bucks), Brian Ellis (R-Butler), Mark Gillen (R-Berks), Keith Gillespie (R-York), Joe Hackett (R-Delaware), Warren Kampf (R-Chester/Montgomery), Mark Keller (R-Franklin/Perry), Rick Saccone (R-Allegheny/Washington) and Chris Sainato (D-Beaver/Lawrence).

More information regarding the legislative priories of Barrar and Marsico can be found at SteveBarrar.com and RonMarsico.com.  Both also post information on Facebook at Facebook.com/RepBarrar and Facebook.com/RepMarsico.

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