WILKES-BARRE – After years of discussions, the Luzerne County court system is actively pursuing the creation of a veterans court to address special circumstances of service members facing criminal charges, a court official said.
Michael Shucosky, court administrator, said Judge Joseph Sklarosky Jr. has been appointed to work on establishing the special treatment court, which court officials hope to have up and running in the coming year.
The move mirrors nationwide efforts to assist an increasing number of veterans who, due to substance abuse and mental health issues that often are related to their service, find themselves on the wrong side of the law, Shucosky said.
The prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is well documented. That condition often leads to substance abuse and other behavioral issues that can land a veteran in court.
Our goal is to identify the issues that affect veterans at an early stage so we can get them deferred out of the criminal court system and into the proper treatment system, Shucosky said.
Veterans courts are based on the same model as drug and mental-health courts – which already exist in Luzerne County – that focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment.
Luzerne County has been looking to establish a veterans court for several years. Former Judge Joseph Cosgrove, who left the bench in December 2011, began the preliminary work on the court.
Cosgrove said he had hoped to establish the court before he left office, but a shortage of judges on the county bench at that time made that impossible. He said he's gratified to learn the court is continuing his efforts.
Veterans deserve our attention, Cosgrove said. After all they've done for us, when they find themselves in the legal system, we need to ask whether their service on our behalf somehow played a role in why they are in the criminal justice system. If it did, we owe them first-rate attention.
Shucosky said the program is still in the developmental phase. Sklarosky is now reviewing information from veterans courts in other counties to get ideas.
He's looking at how they do things, with the intent of incorporating the best of those programs, Shucosky said.
In a related development, the state Supreme Court on Wednesday announced a pilot program to assist veterans at an earlier stage in the court process.
The Magisterial District Judge Diversion program, which is being launched in Centre, Monroe and Westmoreland counties, will offer treatment options for veterans charged with summary offenses.
By introducing earlier intervention, program planners hope to curb behavior from worsening, Chief Justice Seamus McCaffery said in a press release.
What we hope to do here is divert these veterans into treatment before their problems escalate to behaviors that would result in a case getting to the court of common pleas, McCaffery said.