February 16, 2016
Howard Altman | The Tampa Tribune
TAMPA — A special local court for offenders who are military veterans has proven so successful the Department of Justice selected it for a pilot program to help improve veterans’ courts nationwide.
There are now more than 200 veterans courts around the nation, with hundreds more planned.
The Hillsborough County Veteran Treatment Court just began its second year working with veterans accused of felonies and is one of two chosen for the Justice Department’s 21-month initiative. Yellowstone County, Montana, has the other program selected.
The Hillsborough court offers an alternative to incarceration through services provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as a therapist specializing in post-traumatic stress issues and a team of military veterans serving as mentors. Qualified veterans must adhere to a strict regimen of treatment and participation.
The new pilot program is a partnership between the Justice Department’s National Institute of Corrections and the nonprofit Center for Court Innovation. They have created tools that address the unique needs of offenders who are veterans, many of whom suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, depression, drug and alcohol dependence.
“This project develops the first set of screening tools that acknowledges the complexities of war trauma and other unique needs of justice-involved veterans,” said Gregory Crawford, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
The Center for Court Innovation received $400,000 through a bidding process for the first year of operation.
The two courts selected for the pilot program were chosen because they are established programs, show commitment from all members of the court team, and have the resources and offenders to make the initiative work, Crawford said.
One measure of success will be how often veterans end up back in the legal system.
“Ultimately, what we are hoping to learn from this project is that the tools and protocol we have developed will improve outcomes for justice-involved veterans, improve public safety, strengthen communities, and save taxpayer dollars,” he said.
To date, none of the local veterans who committed felonies have had to re-enter the court system, said Judge Gregory P. Holder, a retired Air Force colonel who now runs the Hillsborough County Veterans Treatment Court.
“Our court has been recognized for innovation and obviously excellence with respect to the veteran treatment court model,” Holder said. The model was developed in Buffalo, New York.
Officials with the court and the initiative are examining the best way to introduce the new tools, which include two assessments to determine how to integrate a veteran into the system, said Kristen Slowiczek, who administers the program for the court.
The Hillsborough County Veterans Treatment Court was launched in October 2013 by county Circuit Judge Richard Weis, an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel. Weis said he wanted to do something about the steady stream of misdemeanor charges filed against veterans suffering from service-related problems.
The program was expanded in February 2015, to include veterans accused of felonies. The underlying issues are the same, Holder said, and the approach is comprehensive, with the court, prosecutors, the public defender, the Veterans Administration and the county all taking part.