Veterans advocates have been working the last several months to gain support to create a veterans treatment court in Carroll County.
A veterans treatment court is a diversion program specifically designed to keep veterans with minor and nonviolent offenses out of jail. The goal is to identify the underlying problem, treat it, then help the veteran re-enter society in a healthy and successful way.
According to Josh Marks, a veterans advocate involved with the Carroll County Veteran Independence Project, there are four such courts in the State of Maryland, in Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties, in Baltimore City and in the lower Eastern Shore. The first court in Maryland was established in 2015 in Prince Georges County. Nationally there are more than 400 of these courts.
United Way of Central Maryland supports veterans treatment courts in Baltimore City and in Anne Arundel County, supported by a grant from the Maryland Judiciary’s Office of Problem-Solving Courts as well as donations.
Marks said many veterans suffer from substance abuse issues, sometimes due to attempts to “self-medicate” their mental health issues stemming from untreated post-traumatic stress disorder, symptoms of traumatic brain injury or other ailments that were developed or made worse during military service.
The focus of a veterans treatment court is to assist veterans who enter the criminal justice system with benefits they are already entitled to in an expedited manner. This court model requires regular court appearances as well as mandatory attendance at treatment sessions, and frequent and random testing for drug and alcohol use.
In November four veterans were recognized by the District Court in Baltimore City for successful completion of Veterans Treatment Court during a ceremony presided over by District Court Administrative Judge Halee F. Weinstein.
Weinstein, a U.S. Army veteran, founded the Baltimore City Veterans Treatment Court in 2015 as a comprehensive, court-supervised and voluntary treatment-based program for veterans charged with misdemeanor and concurrent jurisdiction felonies in District Court. About 97 veterans have completed the program to date.
Jason Sidock, executive director of the Carroll County Veterans Independence Project, said such a program would give the opportunity for veterans to access the resources they need to improve, as well working with people who understand them.
“We send soldiers off to fight, they defend our country and then we bring them back home and expect them to go back into society,” he said.
While veterans treatment court personnel aren’t required to be veterans themselves, staff often are veterans.
“It’s similar to drug treatment court … the judges and prosecutors are a little more compassionate because they’ve been in similar situations,” Sidock said.
There are about 12,000 veterans in Carroll County, Sidock said, making it an ideal place for such a court.
“It’s another method to allow our veterans that get in trouble to face the music but also get connected with the resources they need,” he said.
The veterans treatment court would not cost county taxpayers anything, Sidock said. The whole cost would be borne by the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs and the United Way.
This new judiciary venue is being supported by David Ellin, a candidate for state’s attorney in Carroll County.
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“It’s important to serve the nearly 12,000 veterans in Carroll County … we have a moral obligation to do so,” Ellin said. “This is a small way to repay those veterans who enter the criminal justice system.”
He noted in circuit or district court, the Veterans Administration would not intervene, and the veteran would have to rely on the county or state to provide them with treatment, which often is “not as good.”
Veterans treatment court also provides each veteran going through the system with a community mentor to help guide them during the court process.
“Whether it’s one person or 10 people a month, I think it’s well worth it,” Ellin said.
The first steps to creating a veterans treatment court in Carroll County, after garnering community support, is to establish a nonprofit organization. At that point, the state’s attorney would file an application with the VA. Once the application goes in, it would take between three and six months to get the program up and running.
“I’d be surprised if any judge would be against this,” Ellin said. “We’re serving the people who served us.”
Several petitions supporting a Veterans Treatment Court in Carroll County have been circulating. Those who wish to sign may do so at https://www.change.org/p/petition-for-a-veterans-treatment-court-in-carroll-county-maryland.