SUNBURY — A new program at the magistrate level in Northumberland County is designed to support veterans charged with summary offenses by diverting them to the services they need and to help them deal with issues such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, traumatic brain injury or drug and alcohol abuse.
The program is the first of its kind at the magistrate level and one of the first in the state.
“The Veterans Diversion Program recognizes that veterans may struggle with readjustment issues as a result of their service to our country,” President Judge Charles Saylor said. “It is imperative to identify and intercept these individuals early on to get them into appropriate treatment. The best place to do this is at the first point of contact with the court system, namely the magisterial district courts.”
Saylor, who entered an administrative order to approve the program in the county on June 10, said veterans must be eligible for Veterans Affairs benefits in order to enroll in the program since the services are offered through the VA. There is no cost to the county for the services, and the state and federal governments are working closely with the county.
“The wounds veterans carry are not always visible,” said Milton District Judge Michael Diehl, the point person at the magistrate level for the program. “They deserve all the help we can give them.”
Once enrolled in the program, the veteran must abide by the recommended treatment plan approved by the VA in Wilkes-Barre, abstain from drug and alcohol abuse and remain crime-free. Once a veteran completes the six-month program, the summary charges may be dismissed or reduced.
“The program’s goal is to divert veterans early on in the criminal justice system before families are torn apart and before they develop backgrounds that could have a devastating effect on their future,” Saylor said.
District judges, who include Diehl, Benjamin Apfelbaum in Sunbury, John Gembic in Shamokin and Richard Cashman in Mount Carmel, are in a “unique position” to respond to veterans, Diehl said.
“We want to divert them at the earliest possible point to get them the help they need and help prevent further encounters with the court,” he said.
There are approximately 1 million veterans in Pennsylvania with 20 percent believed to have PTSD, Diehl said.
The district judge said he sees veterans enter the system all the time.
“We had no recourse in the past, other than to suggest veterans court at the common pleas,” he said. “The idea now is to catch them as early as possible.” At the common pleas level, Northumberland County established drug treatment court in 2005, DUI and behavioral health were introduced soon after and then veterans court was introduced in 2011. More than 200 individuals have graduated from Northumberland County’s treatment courts.
Treatment court cannot be mandated. Individuals are given the option or can request it themselves, which is how the magistrate program will work.
A veterans court is designed specifically for offenders who are veterans. The veteran is paired with a mentor, a veteran in the community who can relate to the defendant’s experiences.
“We have high hopes,” Diehl said. “It’s their decision to make. We all hope they will allow us to help them.”
Diehl thanked Saylor and the other three district judges for their help in establishing the program.
Belinda Albright, director of Northumberland County Veterans Affairs, was unable to be reached last week. The office is closed due to a conference out of town.
A kick-off meeting with the veterans justice outreach coordinator will be held in the coming weeks, Saylor said.
Email Justin Strawser at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLStrawser.