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Baltimore launches special docket for veterans accused of crimes

In a basement courtroom on North Avenue, three veterans stood before a judge Tuesday and swore an oath that harked back to their military service.

"I promise to uphold the values instilled in me by the armed forces of the United States," the men intoned before Judge Halee F. Weinstein.

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"I will carry myself with honor and dignity out of respect for myself, my country, and the memory of the men and women who gave their lives in service to our nation."

The pledge put the men's cases on Baltimore's new veteran's treatment docket, an approach launched Tuesday as part of a national trend aimed at addressing the problems that drive former members of the military to commit crime.

The idea is that by offering help from the VA and other agencies, rather than threatening jail terms, courts can steer veterans toward treatment, and stop them cycling through the justice system.

"We can bring the VA here to the courtroom and link them immediately," said Weinstein, a former military intelligence officer.

The first veteran's court was set up in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008 after a judge realized how many former service members were coming before him. At least 220 such courts have been set up across the country, according to Justice for Vets, a group that advocates the approach.

Rhonda Pence, a spokeswoman for the organization, said former troops might have specific problems — post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries and self-medicating drug use — that can get them in trouble with the law. But as veterans, they also have special help available to them.

"It is a more compassionate and humane way of dealing with veterans than just putting them in jail," she said.

While the specialized courts have supporters, they have also faced criticism. Lawmakers and civil liberties advocates have expressed concern that they could lead to special treatment for veterans, and have asked why other offenders don't get the same access to services from which they might benefit.

Courts in Fairfax County, Va. operate a similar docket. But when advocates pressed to write it into Virginia state law, some state delegates raised questions.

Del. Rob Bell, a Republican who represents the area surrounding Charlottesville, said he saw no problem with judges organizing their docket more effectively so that defendants could be called to court when social workers would be available to talk to them.

"I don't see much controversy over arranging the docket," he said. "There is concern in Virginia about differential justice for different people."

The officials who assembled in Baltimore on Tuesday for the opening of the new docket expounded on the virtues of efficiently managing court resources and recognizing the sacrifices made by veterans.

"They signed up to serve their country," Weinstein said. "I don't think we are offering them special treatment. I think we are offering them the treatment they earned."

Weinstein said the program does not offer veterans an easy way to avoid taking responsibility for committing crimes. In many cases, she said, the defendant will have to admit wrongdoing before getting help, she said, and the requirements imposed on them will be tougher than ordinary probation.

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To get into the Baltimore program, a veteran is screened by the VA. Then he or she is offered the chance to have the case put on hold; to be found guilty but not get sentenced; or to be convicted and put on probation.

From there the veteran takes the oath, pledging to submit to up to a year of supervision by Weinstein and the team she has assembled.

Officials aim to enroll 50 people in the program over the next two years.

Army veteran Steven Cowan, 54, wasn't sure what to expect when he appeared before Weinstein. But he was excited by the chance to take part in something new.

"It gives me a sense I can become self-sufficient and grow," he said.

Cowan had an outstanding warrant on an old theft charge. Weinstein told him to report to the VA next week for an assessment.

"I felt relieved and I felt safe," Cowan said afterward. "I was in good hands in there."

But there were also hints that running the docket won't be easy. At least two defendants failed to show up. Others declined to take part.

Lamont Grey, 47, said he could use the kind of help the program offers — he thinks he needs medical treatment, and wants to get a steady job. But he said the charge he faces stems from a misunderstanding. He doesn't see why he should have to go through the justice system to get access to any benefits and treatment.

"Why can't I get the services without being driven by that idea that if I don't do everything I'll go to jail?" he asked.

Dr. Adam M. Robinson Jr., the head of the Maryland VA Health Care System, said health care and benefits remain available to other veterans. The idea behind the special court is to link the courts to the veterans to services.

After the hearings, the officials and some of the defendants gathered in the courtroom to share a cake. Weinstein, who had choked up a couple of times on the bench, said she knew there would be challenges ahead.

"Nothing we do in District Court is easy," she said.

As she spoke, one of the men who took the oath walked past on his way out and grabbed her hand. He promised to try to complete the program. Weinstein told him she knew he'd be able to do it.

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