It was only a few years ago that the Florida legislature gave counties permission to create Veterans Treatment Courts as an alternative to criminal prosecution of former military members charged with misdemeanors and third degree felonies.
And in that time 23 courts have been created, but only nine including Pinellas and Pasco counties are funded by lawmakers.
Others like the Veterans Treatment Court in Hillsborough County get no state money.
“We did this within the resources of our offices. Our bosses committed the resources for this court to work,” said Marie Marino with the Hillsborough Public Defender’s Office who represents many of the veterans.
In addition to carrying a full felony docket, Hillsborough Circuit Jude Greg Holder hears all the cases that come before the Veterans Treatment Court (VTC).
“In defense of the legislature though, until we expanded, perhaps it was thought that we didn’t have the need,” Holder said. “Now that it’s expanded, we have over 50 veterans. That need exists and we can use that money and use it wisely.”
Holder took over the veterans’ court in February from Judge Richard Weis when third degree felony cases were added.
Retired Army Col. D.J. Reyes was the first to volunteer as a mentor for the Hillsborough VTC. He now coordinates 33 other mentors – some retired, some still active-duty – along with handling his own caseload.
“It’s been grass roots campaigning on my part because I have no money, I have no funding, I have nothing except me, my time and my energy,” Reyes said.
The mentors are key to the success of the specialty court. All volunteer, they are considered a veteran’s “battle buddy” someone who provides help and accountability. The veterans must check with their mentor at minimum once a week – more often if needed.
Veterans also are assessed by the VA for service related physical and psychological problems. Many need treatment for things like domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse. The VTC gets them enrolled in programs some at the VA others through public, non-profit or even private providers.
Choosing to go through the Veterans Treatment Court is not the easier route. Veterans will spend anywhere from six to 18 months under its supervision. And just like in regular criminal court, the veterans still have to do community service hours and report to the Department of Corrections if on probation.
“The difference in veterans court is the defendants are here voluntarily,” said Hillsborough assistant state attorney Stephanie Ferlita. “They want to seek treatment. They realize they do have a problem. Most of them are embarrassed to have come in contact with the criminal justice system and we are providing them a way to hopefully have a onetime contact with the justice system.”
Another difference in the veterans court – the judge, prosecution, defense, mentors and caseworkers act as a team.
“Even the defense attorney is the first to say, ‘You’ve got to clean up’ or ‘that’s a violation.’ Where in a traditional courtroom, it’s all about defense and mitigation,” Marino said.
The number of veterans seeking admittance into the VTC is growing. And despite having no direct state funding, the court continues to accept qualified veterans.
State Rep. Dwight Dudley from St. Petersburg recently represented one of the veterans in Hillsborough’s VTC. He believes veterans courts should be funded throughout the state.
“If people say they’re patriots and they believe in the value of the service of veterans, they need to step up and put their money where their mouth is and fund the courts the way they need to be funded,” Dudley said.
But the earliest Hillsborough could see any funding would be after January when the legislature meets.
The Veterans Treatment Courts receiving state money this fiscal year:
· Okaloosa ($150,000)
· Clay ($150,000)
· Pasco ($150,000)
· Pinellas ($150,000)
· Alachua ($150,000)
· Duval ($200,000)
· Orange ($200,000)
· Escambia ($150,000)
· Leon ($125,000)
According to the senate president’s office, at this time, there is no specific criteria that determine how and which veterans’ courts get state money.