Bizzarro and Teplitz call for statewide veterans' courts

HARRISBURG, April 15 – State Rep. Ryan A. Bizzarro, D-Erie, and state Sen. Rob Teplitz, D-Dauphin/Perry, today held a joint news conference at the state Capitol to reintroduce their legislation that would establish veterans’ courts statewide.

Bizzarro’s H.B. 887 and Teplitz’s S.B. 517 would institute a specialized veterans’ court in any Pennsylvania county that does not have one. Any existing veterans’ court would be permitted to continue. In addition, Bizzarro’s legislation would allow president judges from different counties’ courts of common pleas to establish joint veterans’ courts, which would be particularly helpful in counties with smaller veteran populations or fewer resources to help veterans in need.

“Some veterans have difficulty readjusting to civilian life, and turn to destructive behaviors,” Bizzarro said. “This legislation would rehabilitate, rather than incarcerate, these veterans who have sacrificed for us. Veterans get a second chance, counties save money in incarceration costs and we build better communities as a result.”

Under the voluntary program, veterans struggling with addiction, mental illness or similar disorders who are charged with nonviolent crimes plead guilty to their charges. They then undergo rehabilitation and are monitored by specialized judges and probation officers. Participants may also work with volunteer veteran mentors. If a judge is satisfied with a participant’s rehabilitation, charges would be dropped.

Pennsylvania has the fifth-largest veteran population in the country, with nearly 1 million veterans, but only 18 of the state’s 67 counties, including Erie and Dauphin, have established veterans’ courts.

“Veterans often endure traumatic experiences that they take with them long after they return from war,” Teplitz said. “That trauma and stress can put them on a path to the criminal justice system. Veterans’ treatment courts provide successful strategies that help veterans heal while reducing recidivism.”

Teplitz also pointed out that mental health and drug treatment courts offer similar programs for offenders.

U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Kristy Wills graduated from the York County Veterans’ Treatment Court last year after turning to alcohol and drugs when her military career ended.

“I lost everything as a result: jobs, my home, my family and my daughter,” Wills said. “But the veterans’ court guided me to the proper channels for treatment. The most important thing I learned was that I was worth saving. The program is rigorous, but if you keep your priorities in order, the benefits last a lifetime.”

Wills now serves as a mentor for other veterans in the York County Veterans’ Treatment Court.

“I have found that helping others in their struggles helps me to grow,” Wills said. “I look forward to assisting others who need someone to believe in them. It’s my turn to shine light where there is none.”

Those attending today’s news conference included state Reps. Marty Flynn, D-Lackawanna, Thomas Murt, R-Montgomery/Philadelphia, and Kevin Schreiber, D-York; Ed Marsico, Dauphin County district attorney; and Jim Youngblood, York County Veterans’ Treatment Court mentor; among others.

The bills have been referred to the House and Senate Judiciary committees, where they await further review.