Veterans need a second chance at clean records for crimes committed with help from compassionate veteran judges and mentors.
They could get that with the help of a Virginia group, the National Veterans Court Alliance headed by Vietnam veteran Luis Quinonez who met with White House and congressional officials last week advancing H.R. 886, the Veterans Treatment Court Coordination Act of 2019.
Bill sponsor Florida Rep. Charlie Crist, Florida Democrat, joined by Virginia’s 1st District Rep. Rob Wittman, Virginia Republican, is part of 117 bipartisan representatives attempting to fast track legislation affecting approximately 450 veteran treatment courts or dockets in 22 states. The legislation’s not mandated participation by courts for vets who commit crimes affected PTSD or TBI issues, but Alliance officials seek nationwide involvement. It’s the right second step in the right direction after the president’s “First Step Act” that aids convicted felons.
Judges, elected officials and mentors from Florida, Kansas, Minnesota and Virginia met as part of the Alliance with Jennifer Korn, deputy assistant to the president for public liaison and other administration officials discussing the merits of advancing legislation.
Mr. Wittman then hosted the Alliance at the Rayburn Building where folks like Marine veteran Judge Ricardo Rigual of Spotsylvania’s 15th Judicial circuit addressed how non-violent offenders rehabilitate themselves in such special programs tailored to vets needs.
But can officials overcome political loggerheads by refusing to see any of one party’s bills advance? The first generation of this legislation in the House sadly sat in committee with Democratic officials calling foul when the majority was still under Republican control.
Now with Democrats controlling the House, Mr. Crist’s bill is moving quickly with bipartisan support from responsible conservatives such as Mr. Wittman. After a second meeting Wednesday with Mr. Crist, a conference with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to discuss the bill is critically needed insuring such vital veterans’ legislation reaches the president’s desk by the end of the year.
Florida Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott have indicated they support the issue that could expunge veterans’ records for infractions such as assault or DUIs, and Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine’s office is prepared to rapidly advance legislation.
Virginia veterans now need officials like State Sen. Bryce Reeves, an Army vet, to develop supporting legislation in the Virginia general assembly even before the feds act with 20-22 vets a day committing suicide over PTSD or TBI-related issues.
Mr. Reeves and White House officials must understand the importance of court process as well as how many thousands of veterans presently in the legal system that will be helped.
Such efforts could be a political boom or bust for veteran candidates such as Prince William’s Richard Anderson, the former delegate desperate to use any issue to return to the general assembly. Mr. Anderson spoke of the need for such Virginia dockets in 2017.
But the Alliance seriously needs the aid of men like Eric Olsen, Stafford’s commonwealth attorney to act as gatekeepers insuring PTSD issues are connected to veteran’s crime.
Too many veterans who have been dishonorably discharged for serious crimes that had no relation to combat service could use such programs claiming PTSD as the basis for review; trying to game the system.
Then there is the issue of finance. Such specialty courts at times are done on a voluntary basis with court personnel, deputies, and former combat veterans as mentors participating on their own dime.
Chief Justice Lawton Nuss of the Kansas Supreme Court, also a former Marine officer, flew to Washington, D.C. to make a passionate presentation to administration and congressional officials regarding need and focus of such legislation at his expense as did others. All should follow his example.
Florida has the largest number of veterans courts in the nation, and will be an excellent model to use as the Alliance determines national best practices and a funding source to aid courts and dockets. Mr. Crist is sponsoring other legislation to provide technical assistance with $25 million in grants. Realistically, more will be needed.
• Daniel P. Cortez, a northern Virginia writer and broadcaster, is director of public affairs at the National Veterans Court Alliance.
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