A York County treatment court is being cited as an example of what some lawmakers wish the rest of the state would do, and local legislators are among those pushing to mandate all counties to have special programs to divert veterans from incarceration.
York's four treatment courts saved taxpayers nearly $1 million last year by offering veterans and some other low-level offenders a chance to avoid jail by entering a treatment program intended to address the underlying causes of their criminal behavior.
Service to one's country has been identified as one of those causes, as some veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues and self-medicate with alcohol or other substances, said Sen. Rob Teplitz, D-Dauphin/York, who's planning to introduce a Senate bill calling for all counties to establish veterans courts.
The bill would serve as a companion to a House bill that has bipartisan local support from Rep. Kevin Schreiber, D-York City, Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, and Rep. Ron Miller, R-Jacobus.
Helping vets: The veterans court is one of four York County treatment courts intended to divert people from jail and address the causes of criminal behavior. The county started with a drug-abuse treatment court in 1997 and expanded to include a DUI court and a mental health court.
The veterans program was added two years ago and is overseen by Common Pleas Judge Craig T. Trebilcock, who served in the Army for 24 years and still serves in the Army Reserve. He also served in 2003 during the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
The veterans court had seven graduates last year, saving them from a total of 3,596 days served in jail at a cost of $298,468. The cost of treatment, which includes intensive counseling and oversight from the court, was $77,231, so the county saved a net of about $221,000, according to data provided by the York County Treatment Courts.
"Any time we can intervene rather than incarcerate, we have the potential of saving taxpayer dollars, and this would be a method of doing that for a specialized population," Teplitz said.
While there's no monetary estimate of what could be saved statewide, Teplitz said the numbers in York County's fledgling program alone show it could be a substantial amount.
A service, too: Beyond the savings, there's the service to veterans who are dealing with issues resulting from their time in the military, he said.
"The idea is to deal with those issues in a way that helps the veterans and helps them stay out of interaction with the criminal justice system, using an intervention model instead of an incarceration model," he said.
Teplitz said the push to mandate treatment programs statewide could start with veterans courts and ultimately include others, such as mental health courts for people who end up in trouble because of mental illness, and DUI court, in which people are treated for alcoholism.
Local relevance: Schreiber said he was impressed with York County's veteran treatment court and invited the writer of the House bill, Rep. Ryan Bizzarro, D-Erie, to sit in on the court at the York County Judicial Center earlier this year.
Schreiber said only 16 counties in the state had veterans courts at the time, but Bizarro's district, Erie, is now becoming the 17th.
Schreiber said the court is operated more like a support group than a courtroom, with Trebilcock balancing sternness with paternal advice.
"It's a support group, essentially," Schreiber said. "(Trebilcock) was asking how their weekend was, if they're having tough times, how the job search is going. And he didn't want them to fail, that I think was very evident. He really was talking to these guys like they were his troops. 'Don't let me down,' and that sort of thing."
Each veteran is paired with a "battle buddy," an older veteran who serves as a mentor, "like an (Alcoholics Anonymous) sponsor," Schreiber said.
"It's hard for them to share their experiences with people who haven't shared their circumstances," he said.
Treatment court studies have shown the rate of recidivism, or repeating offenses, are significantly lower for those who have completed the intensive treatment program.
"But for the veterans treatment court, these people would be sitting in jail," Schreiber said. "Instead you're seeing stable, contributing members of society ... because we're intervening and really helping to provide course correction and break negative behavior patterns."
The House bill is sitting in the Judiciary Committee, while Teplitz said he's gathering more co-sponsors and expects to introduce his version in the coming weeks.
— Reach Christina Kauffman at firstname.lastname@example.org.