A Maryland District Court judge is studying if Frederick and Washington counties need a court to specialize in criminal cases involving veteran defendants.
Veterans courts are intensive treatment programs that assist veterans accused of crimes — like DUI, theft or possession of drugs — due to substance abuse or mental health problems, said Terri Charles, a Maryland Judiciary spokeswoman.
A specialized court can get veterans help through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and local organizations, she said.
To gauge if there’s a need for this type of court locally, Maryland District Court Judge Eric Schaffer said through an email from Charles that every person processed by the District Court commissioners in Frederick and Washington counties, which make up District 11, will be surveyed to see if they identify as a veteran.
The process is anticipated to take about three months, he said.
“Judicial resources are limited, and our dockets are very busy,” Schaffer, an Army veteran, said. “Before we devote significant time and effort to such a court, we want to make sure there is sufficient need.”
Joshua Marks, 62, of Mount Airy, has been a veteran advocate for five years. More recently, he has pushed for a veterans treatment court in Frederick County and other counties in the state.
He’s given presentations on the benefits of veterans treatment courts and garnered letters of support.
Maryland currently has four veterans treatment courts. There is one each in Baltimore City District Court, Anne Arundel District Court and Prince George’s County Circuit Court. There also is a regional veterans court in Dorchester County’s District Court, serving Dorchester, Wicomico, Somerset and Worcester counties.
Marks believes the court in Baltimore City is the “gold standard.” He wants to give veterans in Frederick County the same opportunity for rehabilitation.
“These guys don’t need to be [in the detention center]. It only exacerbates their problem and makes their alcohol or drug abuse or whatever worse because they’re not getting treatment for it,” Marks said.
In 2016, a quasi-veterans court sprouted in the Frederick County Courthouse. It lasted 10 months. It didn’t continue since it didn’t have the approval of the Maryland Court of Appeals.
All “problem-solving courts,” focused on veterans or mental health, for example, must be approved by the Maryland Court of Appeals to be officially established.
Frederick County Circuit Court submitted an application for the veterans court to continue, but the application was withdrawn, Charles said.
Roughly 10 cases went through the court in 10 months, Frederick County Circuit Court Judge Scott Rolle said. Rolle, an Army veteran, presided over the court.
“It seemed to make much more sense to me to send somebody who was suffering with PTSD or substance abuse that may or may not have been service related to see if we could bring back their military discipline and get them the help they needed, rather than just throwing them in jail,” Rolle said.
After the data are collected, Schaffer said in his message through Charles, the District Court can figure out how to proceed based on the numbers.
If there is sufficient need in Frederick County, the District Court can work on a detailed plan for a veterans court, including the personnel and resources involved, said Ken Oldham, CEO and president of United Way of Frederick County.
United Way did preliminary research on veterans treatment courts at the behest of the Frederick County Veterans Advisory Council, Oldham said. United Way went from knowing little about veterans treatment courts to becoming an advocate of them, he said.
“If there is need, then we want to be part of that advocacy to help make the veterans treatment court happen in Frederick County,” Oldham said.
Once the plan is complete, the District Court can secure approval for the treatment court from the chief judge of the Court of Appeals, Schaffer said.
The District Court is surveying Washington and Frederick counties to also explore the option of a multicounty court, like the one on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Schaffer said.
The most popular place for veterans treatment courts is District Court since most criminal cases involving veterans are misdemeanors and not violent, Charles said.
Veterans treatment courts in Circuit Court, Charles said, like the one in Prince George’s County, handle veterans who commit felonies due to mental illness and substance abuse.
Schaffer has observed veterans courts and spoken to mentors who assist veterans in the programs.
“I think it’s a terrific idea,” Schaffer said.
Frederick County State’s Attorney Charlie Smith said he supports the idea of focusing on veterans’ needs in the criminal justice system. His father is a World War II Marine Corps veteran and his son will attend the United States Military Academy.
“I’m certainly in favor of providing unique services to veterans whose struggle results in criminal behavior,” Smith said.
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