Judges discuss a veterans court

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Sharon Kennedy talks with Belmont County Court Judges Eric Costine, left, foreground, and Al Davies, with Common Pleas Judges Frank Fregiato and John Vavra, back, during a discussion about the possibility of establishing a veterans court in Belmont County to address the issues surrounding offenders who are also veterans.

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — The issues surrounding offenders in the court system who are also veterans often call for a particular considerations. This may mean Belmont County could join more than a dozen other counties in the state in forming a veterans court, similar to the county’s drug court, for specialized cases.

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Sharon Kennedy discussed the possibility during a recent meeting of some of Belmont County’s county and common pleas judges.

She noted, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2010 to 2014 survey, Belmont County’s veteran population was 6,121, or 10.9 percent of the county’s population.

“Ohio, if you look at the census, is the fifth largest state in the nation for veterans coming home,” she said. “We have veterans courts operating in a series of counties. … Our goal is to grow veterans courts. I think there’s a hidden need.”

Kennedy said the issues begin with identifying veterans.

“There’s an under-reporting of a criminal defendant that they are in fact a veteran,” she said, adding that judges have told her veteran defendants are often ashamed at being involved in the court system. Other defendants are concerned that a veteran status would somehow be counted as a mark against them in the court process.

“What feeds some of that is fear and shame. … They feel a level of shame, like they have let themselves, their uniform, everyone else down,” she said. “I want to talk with judges about the plight of veterans, the services available for veterans, the ability to identify who might be a veteran.”

In addition, there are such factors as post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and other cases where lasting effects from a veteran’s term of service could impact behavior and necessitate consideration during sentencing or probation.

“If you look at the Iraq and Afghanistan warriors coming home, they’re serving three or four deployments. They are registering PTSD off the Richter scale. … We’re breaking them. We have a responsibility,” she said, pointing out incidents of suicide among veterans.

“As we move forward and see the population that is returning to Ohio who has served in the military, we see numbers of them engaging, unfortunately, in the criminal justice system,” she said.

“There are treatment options available for veterans,” she said. “A veteran is entitled to certain treatments regular criminal defendants aren’t entitled to.”

These include stable housing, education and retraining options.

Kennedy said there are many options that an individual county veterans court could apply, including whether to accept only honorably-discharged veterans, or those of a certain felony level. The veterans court could also create memorandums of understanding with other counties with access to more extensive veteran treatment to handle probation.

“Everybody gets to operate their program how they best see fit, but there’s also a sharing opportunity,” she said.

The attending judges were receptive to the initiative and would further explore the possibility.

“We have always been extremely supportive of the veterans,” Belmont County Common Pleas Judge Frank Fregiato said. “We’ve worked with the local veterans administration on a number of issues and we will continue to do so. We are very excited about the initiative that the justice brings to us today, and that we are very going to seriously explore it.”