A sensible and compassionate idea that accomplishes several worthy goals could be implemented in Manatee and Sarasota counties should the 12th Judicial Circuit launch a program designed to steer wounded warriors away from incarceration for nonviolent crimes. The time has come for this.
Veterans courts exist in 19 Florida counties but not here, a mystery considering then Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton and a Vietnam veteran, introduced legislation in 2011 to allow such a diversion program. The bill passed the Senate unanimously but shamefully died in the House.
Fortunately, though, wiser minds prevailed and 2014 state statutes set some standards for these courts. The idea is modeled after the highly successful drug courts, which allow nonviolent, first-time offenders caught with small amounts of illegal substances to enter diversion and treatment programs.
Ed Brodsky, state attorney for the 12th Judicial Circuit, is partnering with area veterans advocates to explore setting up a veterans court.
Current state law allows wounded warriors suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, sexual assault issues, substance abuse or other psychological problems charged with nonviolent and low-level crimes to be eligible for pretrial education and treatment intervention programs.
Upon successfully completing an intervention strategy with a positive recommendation from a treatment team, charges would be dismissed and the veterans' arrest record expunged.
In Manatee and Sarasota counties, some 500 veterans are arrested annually -- plunging into a judicial system ill-equipped to handle their unique needs behind bars.
A team of veterans advocates and court representatives will visit Pinellas County late this month to observe its veterans court.
The office of Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota and an ardent supporter of veterans issues, arranged the visit and connected the stakeholders to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Lee Washington, veterans service officer for Manatee County, articulated the situation in James A. Jones Jr.'s Herald report last Thursday: "Men and women coming back from combat now are dealing with a lot of issues. Often, the first we hear about them is when they are arrested. The vet deserves the opportunity, if they can benefit from the program."
Florida is finally awakening to a broken correctional system once solely dedicated to incarceration. Harsh zero-tolerance policies and mandatory sentences only served to fill prisons at an exorbitant cost to taxpayers. Rehabilitation got lost in this punishment priority.
Military veterans earned special attention with their service to country. Upon returning home from combat, many veterans encounter difficulties reintegrating into civilian life.
According to the VA, somewhere between 11 percent to 20 percent of veterans from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the longest combat operations since Vietnam, suffer from PTSD.
The nation's first veterans court can be traced back to 2008 in Buffalo, N.Y. Dozens exist now. The 12th Judicial Circuit lags behind this trend, but we're encouraged by Brodsky's optimism even though the concept here remains in the exploratory stage.
"We are early in the year, but if everyone is in agreement, I don't see why it couldn't start this year."
Amen to that. The sooner, the better.