Hillsborough County Starting Veterans Court by William R. Levesque

Posted: August 29, 2013 in News and politics

TAMPA | Hillsborough County Judge Richard Weis is in a better position than most to understand the unique stresses veterans can encounter in civilian life.

A member of the Army Reserve since 1991 and an Air Force veteran, Weis was actually deployed in Afghanistan in 2009 when Gov. Charlie Crist appointed him to the county bench.

“I understand that behaviors considered an asset in the combat theater can lead to involvement in the criminal justice system,” Weis said.

Beginning Oct. 1, Weis will oversee the newest misdemeanor division in Hillsborough County courts — Division V, or veterans court. It’s a court that will allow honorably discharged veterans to get qualifying misdemeanor charges dismissed if they successfully complete a treatment and assessment pro­gram.

The treatment would be provided under existing Department of Veterans Affairs programs for veterans suffering from mental illness, traumatic brain injury, substance abuse or other psychological problems.

Veterans must both volunteer to enter the court and be eligible to receive VA care.

At least initially, the court will be limited to about 25 veterans at any time. Weis said a pilot court program during the last year was successfully completed with nine veterans.

For Weis, Division V is the culmination of two years of effort and collaboration with the VA, prosecutors, public defenders and court adminis­trators.

“I understand that a ‘warrior ethos’ sometimes precludes veterans from seeking available assistance and treatment,” Weis said in an email response to questions. “I understand that there are veterans struggling to get their lives in order due to alcohol or substance abuse, post-traumatic stress and other medical and psychological issues which can be directly traced to their military service and combat experiences.”

He said the division is being created with existing resources without additional funding from the county, state or federal government.

A range of misdemeanor charges are eligible for admission to the court. They include disorderly conduct, possession of cannabis, possession of drug paraphernalia, resisting an officer without violence and trespassing, among others.

Once a veteran successfully completes a treatment program, meeting court conditions that will include status hearings before the judge, the charge or charges will be dropped.

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