December 20, 2014

Elyria
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Lorain County veterans court to open Monday

ELYRIA — Lorain County’s new Veterans Treatment Court will hold its first meeting Monday and begin selecting criminal defendants to participate in the program.

County Probate Judge James Walther, who is overseeing the new court, said the county received preliminary approval from the Ohio Supreme Court on Dec. 31 to move forward. He said the state’s highest court still must conduct an onsite inspection once the program is up and running.

The Veterans Treatment Court was announced in February, along with a four-year grant from the U.S. Department of Justice that will provide partial funding, and Walther had hoped to have it operating by the fall of 2013. The process took longer than expected.

“We didn’t want to start this until we had approval from the Supreme Court,” he said.

The court will take veterans who are facing criminal charges and offer them a chance to receive mental health or substance abuse treatment while they are being closely monitored by a team that will include Walther, county Probation Officer Chuck Schaffer, Lorain defense attorney Zachary Simonoff and representatives from county Prosecutor Dennis Will’s office and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Walther also said that volunteer veterans are also being recruited to serve as mentors to those going through the program.

The idea behind the court, the judge said, is not to serve as a diversion program that would eliminate a criminal case, but to get veterans the help they need so they can move on with their lives.

“This is a treatment court. This is not an excuse court or anything like that,” Walther said. “These people need to be amenable to some type of mental health or substance abuse treatment.”

They will also be connected to services such as job training and benefits that can help them improve their lives, Walther said.

The court mostly will focus on lower-level offenses, with those facing more serious crimes such as murder, rape, arson and the like being excluded, Walther said.

In order for a veteran facing criminal charges to be admitted to the program, Walther said, they must want to participate as well as receive permission from the judge originally assigned to their case and the treatment team.

Walther said he thinks it will take approximately 18 months for a participant to complete the program and that he hopes that court will ultimately have around 30 veterans participating.

Simonoff, a veteran of the Army National Guard, said he’s excited to be involved in the program. He said veterans suffer from a set of problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse at a higher rate than the general population.

He said also said veterans tend to have training and education that makes it more likely that they’ll be able to turn their lives around.

“Studies show that veterans courts are very effective and keep them from reoffending,” Simonoff said.

Walther said the Justice Department grant will pay $60,000 toward the cost of the program for the first two years, $40,000 in the third year and $20,000 in the fourth and final year. He said running the Veterans Treatment Court will cost roughly $60,000 annually.

Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com.