JAMESTOWN - First pioneered in Buffalo, and designed to provide options for veterans with mental heath and drug problems, the Jamestown Veterans Treatment Court is in session.
The treatment court opened last Monday and is a coordinated effort between a variety of local agencies - including the county Veterans Services Agency and the District Attorney's office - to provide county veterans with treatment options after run-ins with the law.
Not to mention the program will save county taxpayers, too.
"We're very excited. We have a lot of experience with problem solving courts," said Robert Nieto, county court attorney.
Chautauqua County currently has both a drug and a mental treatment court, which handle non-violent, criminal cases where treatment and supervision supercede prison time.
If successful, the treatment courts reduce recidivism - cutting down on costs to the criminal justice system.
County Executive Greg Edwards also took notice of the potential savings by implementing the Jamestown Veterans Treatment Court.
"By offering these courts to treat our veterans it helps to avoid incarceration which could cost our county an estimated $55,000 per year for incarceration in a state prison, $23,000 per year in the county jail, and treatment costs of approximately $7,000 per year," Edwards said.
County Veterans Services Director Troy Smith said the new "problem-solving court" has been in the works for almost a year. Smith recently traveled to Buffalo to witness first-hand how the treatment programs operate.
"Veterans like structure, they like the feeling that people care about their services," Smith said. "This program is specifically for veterans. Because of the injuries sustained to the brain and with post-traumatic stress disorder, it affects their judgment to self medicate and to use drugs. This will be a means to get them healed. It takes a giant effort and a lot of resources."
Those resources include the county court system, most notably, the county's Public Defender's Office, Office of Probation and a partnership with WCA Hospital.
Smith also touted the fact that the treatment court will reduce court costs.
"This saves a lot of money," he said. "It's something that needs to be brought up."
WHO IS ELIGIBLE
When designing the Jamestown Veterans Treatment Court, a team of stakeholders was tasked with outlining who would be eligible to take part in the treatment court
Stakeholders later determined that any veteran with military service - one day or five decades worth - was eligible.
"We asked ourselves, 'How do you define who is a veteran?' We decided to leave it open-ended. We don't have a cut-off," Nieto said.
Most veterans who go through the treatment court, Nieto noted, will have a criminal record and have failed to rehabilitate through traditional courts.
"Everything else has been tried and failed," he said. "These are people that are looking at a year in the county jail. They have been given breaks. These are people with track records."
Those who do find themselves in Veterans Treatment Court will include someone with: a military background, a misendeavor or felony, prior criminal record, and some kind of mental health or chemical dependency.
In the early stages of establishing the county's first treatment court for area veterans, stakeholders turned to Buffalo, which in 2008 opened the Buffalo Veterans Treatment the first of its kind in the nation.
In his trip to the Queen City, Smith spoke to Judge Robert Russell the man credited with starting the treatment court specifically designed to aid veterans with mental health and drug addiction.
"I brought that back and presented it to our local leader," Smith said. "They were really on board, and that's where it really kind of started."
"This is our first year, we don't really have a lot of experience yet," Nieto added.
The Buffalo treatment court has over 100 "mentors" who help veterans through their treatment program, often providing assistance to reintegrate into civilian life.
Once in the treatment court program, veterans will enter the VA Western New York Healthcare System, based in Buffalo and with outpatient centers all over Western New York including Jamestown and Dunkirk.
"It connects them to the health care they may need in transitioning from combat to civilian life," said Evangeline Conley, public affairs officers for the Veterans Health Care System. "Some veterans do have some difficulties when they come back."
Conley said the two-month treatment court program - which include a variety of services to veterans - has proven successful.
"There is a very high success rate of the program," she continued. "They have proven their success."
Conley said there has been a noticeable increase in area veterans who are entered in Veterans Affairs, whether at area hospitals in Buffalo or Erie, Pa., or in treatment programs in outpatient centers through the treatment court.
Others, too, have noticed the increase.
"More veterans have been identified in the criminal justice program," said John LaHood, veterans justice outreach coordinator for the VA. "It's one more way to identify veterans who need treatment. It's one more way to get them the treatment they need (and) it builds a better connection with the VA."
LaHood travels to the treatment courts in Buffalo, Dunkirk and Jamestown to oversee the programs. He also visits the jails directly to find those who are already incarcerated.
"We go in there and try to find who can benefit from the veterans courts," he said.