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Push for Federal Funding for Veterans Courts Starts in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Seamus P. McCaffery testified before Congress last week in support of making federal funding available to state and local governments to establish Veterans Treatment Courts across the country.

McCaffery addressed the House Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Problems Subcommittee on Appropriations last week. He spoke in support of HR 3721, the Servicemember Assistance for Lawful Understanding Treatment and Education (SALUTE) Act.

The Act would provide funding for the specialty courts, which assist all veterans and helps funnel them to treatment for addiction and mental illness and away from the traditional justice system for misdemeanor offenses.

The measure was introduced in December by U.S. Representative Patrick Meehan to address post-traumatic stress, mental illness, drug abuse and alcohol dependency that can bring veterans in contact with the criminal justice system.

McCafferey said federal funding for Veterans Courts would make a huge difference. Right now, local communities fund the courts and in many places around the nation, the need is there but the funds aren't.

All of the judges who work in Pennsylvania's Veterans courts are managing them on top of their current schedule of cases. Some use volunteer mentors to help the effort. The only federal help they get is from the Veteran's Administration, which works with the courts to provide mental health treatment, job training and other services.

"We owe it to them. We take young men and women perfectly fine out of our communities, we put them in uniform, we train them how to fight and we send them off to war and I tell people, 'We honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice … we see the wounds, but what we don't see is that invisible wound.' And that wound right now is causing a lot of problems for families, for employers and for the veterans themselves," said McCafferey.

There are about eighty veteran's courts across the country. Twelve of those are in Pennsylvania, including one in Allegheny County. It opened in November of 2010 and is presided over by Judge John Zottola, who also presides over the county's Mental Health Court. Ten more Veteran's courts are in the works in other Pennsylvania counties.

McCafferey says there is a growing need for this with the large numbers of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, the Veterans Treatment Courts have seen a growing number of Vietnam-era veterans coming before the judges.

"We thought that those individuals were now getting too old to be in the criminal justice system, but what we're finding is many of them who came back were able to suppress the feelings, and now that their families are grown and gone, they're retired from their jobs and sitting around their homes, they're starting to relive a lot of it or have flashbacks," he said.