Belmont County veterans court opens
ST. CLAIRSVILLE — Belmont County now has a veterans court to provide special assistance to offenders whose crimes are connected to their experiences in military service.
Belmont County Common Pleas Judge Frank Fregiato said that military service and patriotism are important to Belmont County residents when he described the program Monday in his courtroom. Officials from the prosecutor’s office and the Belmont County Veterans Service Commission attended.
“We have 10.9 percent of our population veterans. That’s a huge percentage. One-tenth of our population, over that, is veterans,” Fregiato said.
The Belmont County program will be the 15th active veterans court in Ohio. Fregiato received word early this month that the Ohio Supreme Court had approved the program.
Fregiato will conduct the program. He said the veterans court will have a specialized docket similar to the current drug court, with the goal of addressing the underlying issue behind an individual’s criminal behavior. Fregiato expects the program to last a minimum of one and a half years for each defendant.
“Being a veteran alone does not mean you’re eligible for veteran’s court. Something has had to have happened while you were doing your military duty that has cause or connection to the crimes that were later committed,” the judge said. “We want to solve the problem that you have that put you in this situation, because we Americans put you in the situation where you developed the problem.”
Fregiato said the program would rely on the probation department as well as the public defender’s and prosecutor’s offices to recommend candidates.
“Getting into veterans court, as getting into drug court, is not an easy route to go,” Fregiato said. “Once you qualify to get into veteran’s court, you have to be dedicated not only to getting into veteran’s court, but to resolve your issue — whatever you’ve been brought into veteran’s court for, and that can be a very grueling process.”
Like in drug court, the offender would plead guilty to the charge and be able to have the charge expunged after successfully completing the program. Fregiato said only low-level, non-violent offenders would be considered. Both honorable and other-than-honorable discharges will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Fregiato said the veterans court will work through Village Network as its counseling agency. He said the network covers a range of issues, including psychological problems as well as addiction.
Each participating veteran will have a trained mentor who also is a veteran. The Belmont County Veterans Commission is compiling a list of prospective mentors.
Fregiato said judges will actively ask if offenders have served in the military during arraignments. He said so far there have been no candidates for the new court.
Fregiato said after two years court officials will evaluate the veterans court and determine the numbers of veterans helped. He added that while he was a county court judge he operated an informal veterans court for two years but had no applicants.
“Because we have a large number of veterans in Belmont County doesn’t mean we have a large number of veterans committing crimes, and if you have a lot of veterans committing crimes, it doesn’t mean it’s related to your military service,” he said, adding that numbers may increase as word about the program gets out.
He noted that Guernsey County has contacted Belmont County for the possibility of partnering.
“(Belmont County) would be the lion’s share of directing the counseling, directing the judicial proceedings, but we would also serve Guernsey County individuals. I don’t know how that would work, that would be up to the Guernsey County Common Pleas judges. I’m willing to keep an open mind about that in order to serve them,” he said.
Belmont County Veterans Services Executive Director Cindy Maupin said she sees potential in the program.
“It’s a great idea, and our office is in charge of getting together mentors for the program,” Maupin said, adding that mentors must be veterans and have undergone training. She is looking for volunteers. “I need about 10 people.”
“We are very pleased to play an active role in the veterans honor court program,” Belmont County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Kevin Flanagan said. “It is a program that will serve the veteran community well. We at the prosecutor’s office know that some men and women face difficulties after their service to the country. Those difficulties could lead to criminal offenses, and that is exactly what this program will address. Again, we could not be more proud to play our part and look forward to working with the court and its staff to make this a valuable resource for those who deserve it most.”