St. Lucie County’s Veterans Court represents a non-traditional approach to criminal offenders who have served both during peace and wartime. Since its inception on Aug. 8, 2014, Circuit Judge Robert E. Belanger has helped to reduce criminal recidivism and lower incarceration costs by keeping veterans who have committed non-violent crimes out of jail. Rather than focusing only on the crimes they commit and the punishments they receive, Veterans Court also attempts to solve some of the participants' underlying health, substance abuse and psychosocial problems.
The Veterans Court is eligible to anyone who served honorably in the U.S. Armed Forces, has been charged with a crime appropriate to the court, and resides in the 19th Judicial Circuit. Admission to Veterans Court is not automatic. Veterans must seek entry into the program.
Modeled after other successful national programs, the Veterans Court is building upon a collaborative effort between the 19th Judicial Circuit Court, the State Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, St. Lucie County Veterans Services Office and other community partners.
Veterans Court is also dependent on a non-adversarial courtroom atmosphere where a single judge, dedicated court staff, the treatment team, and the Mentors work together toward the common goals of breaking the cycle of substance abuse and criminal behavior, and addressing mental and physical health issues. An environment with clear and certain rules is created, and each participant's compliance is within his or her own control.
Recent studies have shown that too many former service members were having a hard time re-entering the civilian population for a number of reasons. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Injury, Disability, Substance Abuse or other Mental Health problems, compounded by the lack of jobs, family, housing issues, and other social obstacles have taken their toll on Veterans from many wars and conflicts.
St. Lucie County is not the only county facing these issues. Many counties within the United States were facing the same problem. Combat veterans who have had “run-ins” with the law or are struggling with addiction don’t need to end up in jail; they need counseling and assistance. The key to success in the Veterans Court program is the mentor. Each veteran in the program is assigned a mentor, another veteran, who is most of the time from the same branch of service or wartime era. That way the veteran is not alone. His or her mentor is there for them every step of the way. A strong bond is forged between the Mentor and the Veteran. Working together, nearly all veterans are able to successfully complete the mandated program and go back to their lives.
In recognizing that these are the men and women whom have placed their lives "in harm's way" to defend the United States of America, we owe them a second chance. Being referred to a Veterans Court, in most cases, will give them that second chance.
However, veterans are needed to serve as volunteer Mentors to assist veterans through the legal process, including appearing with them at their court dates or providing transportation to mandated drug screenings and/or counseling sessions.
Veterans who are interested in becoming a mentor or wishing to volunteer with the Veterans Court are asked to contact Luis Diaz, Mentor’s program supervisor, at 772-462-6772 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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