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Stakeholders gather to discuss veterans criminal justice diversion program for Jefferson County

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All of the stakeholders needed to create a criminal justice system diversion program for military veterans in Jefferson County gathered together Friday to learn more about the program that has been successfully rolled out in Onondaga and Oneida counties.

The Fifth Judicial District is promoting the program as a way for law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and others in the legal system to recognize issues that are unique to military and combat veterans and may have contributed to a criminal offense, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder.

The program fashions a treatment regimen for the offender that factors in the military service and, if the veteran is amenable to the treatment, can result in a more favorable disposition of the criminal case or even help the offender avoid being arrested for low-level charges.

“Why do people have to get arrested to get anything done?” said Gerard J. Neri, special counsel to Judge James C. Tormey III, Syracuse, administrative judge for the Fifth Judicial District. “How about we try to do something before they get arrested?”

Jefferson County has in recent years treated veterans through an adjunct of its Drug Court program, in which nonviolent felony offenders can avoid incarceration if they agree to seek treatment for substance abuse or mental health issues and stick to it. If a person fails in the program, the person is sentenced to a prison term that was contemplated before he or she entered the program.

But the diversion program that the Fifth Judicial District prefers does not wait until a veteran appears in a felony court to get involved. It frequently begins with police officers encountering a veteran. At the officer’s discretion, the veteran sometimes may be offered treatment in lieu of being arrested, Mr. Neri said, particularly if the offense is minor, such as disorderly conduct. In Syracuse, police often take the veteran to the VA hospital, where a coordinator from the Veterans Justice Outreach Program can be contacted and begin lining up appropriate treatment.

Kynna L. Murphy, the program’s coordinator in Syracuse, said that if an arrest has to be made, a coordinator visits the veteran, frequently in jail, and prepares an assessment of the need for treatment and then shares the assessment with prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and probation officers to help fashion a disposition for the case.

One problem, particularly among younger veterans, is that they associate the term “veteran” with being an elderly person and do not think of themselves as veterans, according to Matthew J. Doran, an assistant district attorney in Onondaga County.

“Veterans will not identify as veterans,” he said.

He and Ms. Murphy said a key initial step is to get the person to say he or she is a veteran, so police and town and village justices are trained to ask the person if he or she ever served in the military, rather than if he or she is a veteran. While not all veterans may be eligible for the diversion program, prior military service still can be considered when fashioning a disposition that is favorable to the defendant and protects the community, Mr. Doran said.

One issue for Jefferson County is that, while it has had a veterans outreach coordinator for about two years, it does not have a veterans hospital to which a veteran in crisis, such as a suicidal subject, can be taken immediately. Mr. Neri said the judicial district is working with Samaritan Medical Center to arrange to have veterans brought to the Watertown hospital’s emergency room before being transferred to the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Syracuse.

While many of the stakeholders gathered Friday at the Watertown Veterans Center on Court Street had heard presentations about the diversion program separately, the presentation marked the first time all had met at the same time.

“Getting everyone familiar with the services that are available, and the resources that are available, is a very good thing,” District Attorney Cindy F. Intschert said.

Among the attendees were state Supreme Court Judges Hugh A. Gilbert, James P. McClusky and Charles C. Merrell, Jefferson County Judge Kim H. Martusewicz, Watertown City Judge Catherine J. Palermo, Sheriff John P. Burns and Undersheriff Paul W. Trudeau, Watertown Police Department Capt. Cheryl A. Clark, County Public Defender Julie M. Hutchins and several town justices.

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