The District Court of Maryland in Baltimore City plans to launch a veterans treatment docket on Tuesday, following in the footsteps of Prince George’s County Circuit Court and becoming the first district court in the state to offer a docket focused on the needs of those who served in the military.
Like drug and mental health courts, the voluntary veterans treatment docket will be focused on rehabilitation rather than incarceration, and will offer services to veterans related to education, housing and mental health.
“We’re going to provide what I would describe as ‘wraparound services’ — substance abuse counseling, mental health treatment if that’s necessary, job counseling and job training,” said Judge Halee F. Weinstein, who will preside over the docket.
Baltimore City Community College will provide educational advancement opportunities to the veterans who participate, and an organization called Back on My Feet, which aims to empower the homeless through running and walking programs, will also be available to the veterans, Weinstein said. Exercise has been shown to benefit those dealing with substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Homeless Persons Representation Project will also screen veterans on the docket for civil legal issues and provide legal representation for discharge upgrades and claims for military service-related disability benefits, as well as refer cases to the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Bob Parsons Veterans Advocacy Clinic or other legal service providers, said HPRP executive director Antonia Fasanelli.
“The other special component is that each of the veterans who participate in the docket are connected to a mentor, and the mentors are veterans themselves,” Fasanelli said. “Essentially someone would have a buddy that would be with them and check in with them on a regular basis while they’re moving through the court system.”
Hugh McClean, director of the veterans advocacy clinic at UB Law, said the role of the mentors includes keeping the veterans on-track in the program and serving as a resource they can turn to for help if they are struggling with aspects of the treatment.
“The mentor acts as a support person to keep the defendant on-task and motivated, and really provides that liaison role to all of the different people in the court that the defendant might be intimidated to talk to,” McClean said. “The mentor and the defendant have that veteran-to-veteran connection, and knowing the mentor is a veteran and expects something from him makes the defendant step up and gives him extra motivation to do his treatment and complete his program. There’s some extra accountability.”
McLean’s students will assist with training some of the mentors, as well as perform in-take for veterans in need of civil legal assistance, he said.
“The students would develop course materials, they would develop curriculum and then they would train them on what’s the role of the judge and who are all the players, what are the important stages of the process — what happens at arraignment, how does the plea work, when does a case get dismissed,” he said.
The training will also include discussion of ethical issues, McClean said, such as potentially competing ethical duties of the mentor to the court and to the veteran.
All veterans welcome
Former Maryland State Bar Association President Debra Schubert cited the launch of a veterans court or docket in the state as one her major priorities when she was installed as president last year. Other groups working on the project include the MSBA, city’s public defender’s and state’s attorney’s offices, United Way, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Health Care for the Homeless.
Some of these organizations will also be offering services directly to veterans on the docket, along with Baltimore Station, an organization that provides a residential treatment program for the homeless; the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation’s Veteran Services division; Helping Up Mission, which provides programs for the homeless; the Maryland Center for Veterans Education & Training; and Project PLASE, which provides housing and support services to the homeless.
“We decided pretty early on as a group that this docket was going to be available to veterans regardless of their military discharge status,” Fasanelli said. “That is actually a distinctive component of this docket — there are many veterans treatment courts around the country that will only serve veterans who are honorably discharged.”
Sixteen veterans are scheduled to appear before the court on Tuesday. For most veterans, the program will last somewhere between 90 days and 12 months, Weinstein said. Each participant will attend status hearings on the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month for the duration of their time on the docket.
The plan for the specialized docket was developed with the help of American Bar Association guidelines and the example set by other courts around the country, Fasanelli said.