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Veterans courts needed

Tomorrow, we pay homage to those Marylanders who faithfully served our country in uniform. Many of those who served will ask for no more, realizing it is both a privilege and honor to serve this great country in its time of need. For a growing few, however, that quiet acknowledgment isn't enough. Among those veterans are many who find themselves unnecessarily lost in the criminal justice system, plagued by demons that they have collected along the way in serving. It does not have to be this way. A simple solution is already in place in many other states.

Veteran Treatment Courts have been around for years and are effectively addressing the complex and unique challenges and issues that veterans face. In 2008, a judge in Buffalo, N.Y., seeing an influx of veterans parade through his court had the foresight and wisdom to realize that something had to be done. Because of this judge's singular determination, countless veterans have been brought back from the abyss and returned to their communities as productive and proud members — just as they were prior to their selfless and honorable service.

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The issues faced by veterans in many ways do not significantly differ from others. Veterans will face challenges with property rights, domestic issues and consumer issues, not to mention the ever increasing importance of employment rights. These concerns have been well addressed, for the most part, by our existing laws.

As strange as this might sound to many, Maryland is a military state. In addition to significant and prominent military bases, and a world renowned academy, Maryland is home to over 450,000 veterans. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, we are home to over 28,000 men and women who fought in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and in many cases, both. Unfortunately, of those, one in five is adversely impacted by that service, often suffering mental health issues, often accompanied by ill-advised self-medication. The result of this often silent fact is that too many of our veterans are unnecessarily finding themselves in a court that is neither prepared nor able to address the unique challenges faced by these veterans. Compounding the problem is the stoic nature of many who served in the military. Despite the military's best efforts to try to de-stigmatize mental health issues, soldiers are still loath to either admit problems or seek help.

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Our criminal justice system has embraced a diversionary court model, believing rightfully so, that it is more effective to intervene and put those who have stepped outside social norms back on track, avoiding, when appropriate, the ever-growing burden of a criminal record. In Baltimore alone there are drug, teen, homeless, prostitution and mental health courts, to name but a few that aim to serve groups of people who have special needs within the criminal justice system. Absent in this impressive array of problem solving courts, is a Veterans Treatment Court.

There are many leaders in Maryland who have long advocated for the Veterans Treatment Court model, and our state legislature has considered bills proposing the Veterans Court model. And there are some jurisdictions that have taken steps to even implement a treatment court. These enlightened civil servants realize that when you divert a troubled veteran you actually reduce the likelihood of recidivism, homelessness, unemployment, suicide and the cost of incarceration.

And it is the right thing to do for a segment of our state's population that not too long ago was willing to serve and even die for their country, if fate so deemed it. This is not charity or pity; it is simply a matter of fulfilling a social contract with those who willingly, and in many cases, heroically, answered our nations' call.

It is time that Maryland acknowledge that we must help our veterans in a meaningful way. It is time for Maryland to join 35 other states and 168 other jurisdictions in establishing a Veterans Treatment Court.

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Charles M. Blomquist is an attorney in Baltimore City, a member of the Maryland State Bar Association's Military and Veterans' Affairs Section and a lieutenant colonel with the National Guard, having deployed 3 times to Afghanistan and Iraq. His email is Charles.mario.blomquist@gmail.com.

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