April 1st, 2014

Bill to expand veterans’ court is revised

A $1.16 million proposal to expand Maine’s veterans’ court statewide has been revised to a $40,000 plan to cover a grant expiring at the end of June, says Rep. Lori Fowle (D-Vassalboro), who introduced the bill.

“The Judiciary was asked to put a physical note on an amount,” she says. “They never consulted with me, so they priced it as if it was going to go statewide…which was not my intent of expansion.”

Fowle says she was hoping for a smaller expansion – one or two more veterans’ courts than the one in Kennebec County. “I felt there was a need beyond Kennebec,” she says. “To have a state the size of Maine and only have one veterans’ court and having veterans have to relocate here. I think there is a possibility that veterans are saying no, they don’t want to move.”

The Veterans’ Treatment Court started in 2011 as “an outgrowth” of Maine’s Co-Occurring Disorders Court, says Mary Ann Lynch, government and media counsel for Maine’s courts.

The Co-Occurring Disorders Court offers an alternative to incarceration with a team approach to treatment for offenders dealing with mental illness and substance abuse combined. Veterans’ Treatment Court is designed for those who have served or are still serving and have come home to commit felony crimes. Veterans are not required to be dealing with both issues to be eligible for the program, Lynch says. Both courts are presided over by Justice Nancy Mills in Kennebec County Superior Court.

Lynch says the veterans’ court was a collaborative effort between the courts and the district attorney in Kennebec County. “We don’t do any of these problem solving or drug treatment courts on our own. We need to have a very willing and committed DA. We need to have a willing and committed sheriff in some cases, depending on the charges, and we need an agency that is providing the services, in this case the Togus [Maine VA Medical Center] in Augusta.”

Veterans’ court has never had state funding, says Lynch. A federal grant has been funding a prosecutor’s salary, but that funding runs dry as of July 1 and cannot be renewed, Fowle says.

Fowle’s bill now asks the state to provide the $40,000 needed to cover the loss of the grant, she says. “This is the first time any funds have been put to veterans’ court from the state. … It’s definitely a step in the right direction.”

The court in Augusta is open to veterans who live anywhere in Maine. The program, which veterans enter into through a plea deal, still has open slots. There are 25 slots available through veterans’ court, with 13 participating in the program as of the end of February, says Lynch.

“There are arguments that there are still openings in this court so maybe there isn’t a need for more,” she says. “I think there could be veterans who are saying no and I don’t want to see veterans miss out on the opportunity to get help…Veterans do well in this program, they are so trained to follow the rules and listen to superiors.”

Fowle was prompted to write the bill after attending the first graduation of the court program in August, which had two graduates, one of whom had the possibility of jail for 30 years. “I think he spent 18 months in the program, got intense treatment and he now has custody of his kids; he’s on the right track; he’s going to school, can speak publicly; he didn’t even want to go to a grocery store.” she says.

“It does keep them out of jail,” she says. “To me, it puts them on a different track in life.”

By Rivkela Brodsky

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