Veterans Honor Court plays needed and productive role
Two proud American military veterans who, like thousands of others, found themselves on the wrong side of the law after a jarring re-entry to civilian life, celebrated momentous victories this week in the Mahoning County Court of Common Pleas.
There, David McGouldrick and Ramon Taylor became the first successful graduates of the Veterans Honor Court, a relatively new specialized docket in the county that serves military veterans charged with low-level, nonviolent felony offenses.
Both men had served their country honorably in the front lines of major conflicts, McGouldrick in the War in Iraq and Taylor in Operation Desert Storm. Both faced turmoil and struggles in readjusting to the far less regimented lifestyle outside of the military. And both ultimately ran afoul of the law and found themselves indicted on nonviolent charges in 2016.
Two years later, both men have had their charges withdrawn and their lives turned around , thanks in large part to the intervention of the Honor Court.
The court is modeled after the pioneering veterans court that operates in Youngstown Municipal Court for former service men and women charged with misdemeanors. Like other veterans dockets across Ohio and the nation, it seeks to treat veterans by breaking the cycle of drug use, taming mental-health demons and addressing other behavioral issues that often lie at the heart of aberrant behavior. In return for robust participation in a highly regimented and disciplined program of rehabilitation, successful court graduates avoid jail time.
We commend presiding Judge Anthony D’Apolito, his predecessor and founder of the court Judge Shirley Christian and former Judge Robert Milich who instituted Youngstown’s successful program and served as a consultant to establishing the county docket. All of them have shown an understanding of and commitment to the special needs of America’s military personnel once they run headlong into the civilian criminal justice system.
The highly disciplined program involves a wide swath of players, including veterans’ service and mental health and substance-abuse recovery officials, probation and community corrections officials, prosecuting and defense lawyers, and a large group of unsung heros who serve as watchful mentors over participants.
And for those who think the Honor Court functions as little more than a get-out-of-jail-free card for its participants, think again. Veterans accepted into the program must complete a rigorous regimen of community service, compliance with medications, medical visits and treatment, counseling, mandatory check-ins and other requirements. In addition, participants must complete a final project that will have a positive impact on veterans in the community.
In the end, the victors in the program are many. First and foremost, the participating veterans win by helping them overcome mental-health problems or drug-dependency issues that often triggered the criminal activity in the first place.
Local communities and their economies also win. Through a variety of mentoring and treatment services, veterans make the slow but productive journey back into society and gainful employment.
American taxpayers also win. Veteran treatment courts have a proven track record of reducing incarceration and recidivism rates, thereby lowering the burdensome costs of prison operations on citizens.
Advocates for veterans point out that as the specialized dockets have grown, incarceration rates for veterans have tumbled. Today, 8 percent of all imprisoned individuals are military veterans, compared with 28 percent 30 years ago, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Clearly, the expansion of veterans courts in the Mahoning Valley holds promise. One caveat, however, would be to ensure that the rehabilitative interests of veterans do not trample on the rights of victims seeking fairness and proper meting out of justice. Mahoning County’s program that admits only veterans facing nonviolent and nonsexual felonies appears to recognize the need to maintain that delicate balance.
The honor court also rightfully recognizes the special circumstances of many criminal defendants who selflessly served the nation in its armed forces. Americans who risked their lives for their country and who have suffered adverse consequences as a result have earned access to all available resources to rebuild their lives. Mahoning County’s Honor Court has established itself as a promising resource for veterans sincerely committed to productive and lasting change.