A GUIDE TO ALLEGHENY COUNTY VETERANS COURT
What is Veterans Court?
Veterans Court is a treatment court designed to serve justice involved veterans struggling with addiction/substance abuse issues, mental health issues (such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury, or other verified Axis 1 diagnosis), and reintegration issues. The Court is in a unique position to assist veterans who have honorably served our country in accessing a support system of government and community based resources in order to regain stability in their lives.
Veterans Court strives to connect qualifying veterans to services and intensive treatment and support while promoting sobriety, recovery, and stability through the coordinated efforts of the Veterans Court partners. Veterans Court also provides participating veterans the opportunity to benefit from the assistance, support, guidance and encouragement of a fellow veteran peer mentor, while the veteran is involved in the legal process. With a focus on resource coordination and guided rehabilitation, Veterans Court not only offers a chance for justice-involved veterans to conquer problems and to get their lives back on track, but provides the community with an opportunity to give back to the men and women who have offered their lives to protects us, and who have sometimes suffered from the often devastating emotional wounds of war.
VETERANS COURT (VC) strives to:
Divert qualifying veterans from jail to treatment programs and VA or community based services;
Maintain a continuum of treatment services, rehabilitation (including mental health, drug, alcohol, and other related issues), housing, benefits, supervision, community support
Provide qualifying veterans peer/mentor support
Promote public safety by treating and providing close supervision, monitoring, and substantive and peer support services for veterans, which in turn provides multi-level benefits to the community, including substantial monetary savings and a projected lower recidivism rate. Though relatively new, Veterans Court anticipates the same substantially lower recidivism rates for graduates as has been proven with Mental Health Court graduates when compared to the general criminal recidivism rate.
Who Comprises Veterans Court?
Veteran’s Court is a joint program of the Court of Common Pleas (VC is fortunate have one specially assigned Judge, the Honorable John A. Zottola, who additionally heads the County’s Mental Health Court), the District Attorney’s Office, a designated VC attorney representative for defense (such as Office of Conflict Counsel, the Public Defender, etc.), Adult Probation, the VA, and JRS (the subdivision of Allegheny County Department of Human Services, dedicated to treatment of court involved individuals with MH/MR and behavioral health issues, which provides MH service plans for qualifying persons not managed by the VA). Additionally, the Veteran’s Leadership Program (a non-profit group run by Veterans for Veterans www.vlpwpa.org) currently sponsors the ‘mentor’ program.
What are the criteria that must be met for a defendant to be considered eligible for Veterans Court?
Defendant is 18 years or older and a current military member in good standing or a member of the military who was not dishonorably discharged
Documented qualifying Axis I diagnosis, including but not limited to Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome or Traumatic Brain Injury.
- Veteran must provide a psychological evaluation, dated within the previous 12 months, verifying an Axis I diagnosis, which may include:
- Bipolar Disorder
- Major Depression, Depression NOS
- Psychotic Disorder
- Other Axis I psychiatric disorders on a case by case basis
Voluntary participation by a defendant: Any Defendant with a qualifying diagnosis who VOLUNTARILY expresses an interest in VC, or who agrees voluntarily to be part of the program once referred
- Referral may be made by any interested person who feels the defendant is appropriate to be considered: law enforcement, defense counsel, family member, jail personnel, employer, etc.
The victim consented to the case proceeding in VC
- For relevant cases, victim consent must be obtained. For example, assaults, thefts, burglary, etc. Generally, for crimes such as retail theft from a business, trespass, possession, consent is not sought.
- In extremely rare circumstances, where the case is otherwise appropriate, a case may be accepted to VC over the objection of a victim, but the victim will be given the opportunity to appear on the court date to voice their objection or concerns.
The case(s) referred to VC currently allege(s) misdemeanor and/or felony crimes in Allegheny County
- Summary cases are not accepted (maximum penalty 90 days).
- VC is not a diversionary program: the conviction/guilty plea becomes a permanent part of veteran’s permanent criminal record (unless the case is designated as VC/ARD, and all requirements were successfully completed. See below.)
- ARD and VC: This office has a diversionary program called ARD (Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition), designed for first time offenders with qualifying charges who, upon successful completion of the program, will have charges dismissed. Recently, the DA has made a joint ARD/VC program available in limited circumstances for qualifying first time offenders who choose to have the case proceed through ARD with the probation served under the supervision of VC, thereby providing qualifying VC participants the opportunity to have charges subsequently dismissed.
The facts and circumstances of the case are acceptable for VC
- All referrals are reviewed on a case by case basis to determine whether they are appropriate for admission into court. Certain charges may be acceptable in some instances but not others. For example, Arson may be acceptable where a person was attempting to commit suicide, but not where arson was committed for the purpose of insurance fraud.
The Sentencing Guidelines on the case are acceptable for MHC
- Significantly high sentencing guidelines and/or prior criminal history, which translates to a sentence of state incarceration under the guidelines, will prevent the case from acceptance, as will mandatory sentences requiring state incarceration.
The case is pending: the defendant is awaiting a trial or sentencing
- All cases considered for admission to VC are criminal cases which have been properly filed, have been held for court subsequent to a preliminary hearing, and a criminal case file has been generated by the District Attorney’s Office.
- Except in limited or emergency circumstances, the case cannot be reviewed for VC until a DA case file is generated (at or post Formal Arraignment stage), in order for the DA to have access to all case facts, discovery, guidelines, and victim information upon which to base a MHC acceptance decision
- In limited circumstances, where the court deems a referral to VC subsequent to conviction/plea appropriate, VC has consented to assume supervision of defendants who pled/were convicted outside VC but who were sentenced to a period of electronic monitoring, house arrest, and/or probation, where the sentence may be transferred to/monitored by VC.
- Any defendant already sentenced to jail time, or who has negotiated a plea agreement calling for jail time will normally not be eligible for VC
- Periodically, if a case is otherwise not acceptable in VC due to the nature of the charges or an expected jail sentence, but the originally assigned trial ADA negotiates a plea (for example, if evidentiary or witness problems exist with the case) to VC acceptable charges and a sentence of electronic monitoring, house arrest, or probation, VC will accept the case or assume supervision of the sentence.
What criteria will prohibit referral to, or render a defendant ineligible for, Veterans Court?
Out of County, out of State or Federal Detainer
Probation Violation Matters
Indirect Criminal Contempt Matters (PFA)
Current Fugitive – Out of county warrant, bond forfeiture, or defendant otherwise missing
Megan’s Law cases
Victim is a juvenile
Defendant demands a jury trial
Objection by Victim, Law Enforcement Officer, VC Team member, or other interested party (but see exceptions below)
Defendant refused (VC is a voluntary program)
Case carries mandatory sentence (State Penitentiary incarceration) upon conviction
Criminal charges/facts of case are unacceptable per VC protocols, and/or would require supervision restrictions (see below)
Assault with a deadly weapon and/or serious injury and/or history of violence
Defendant charged with serious, violent, and/or excluded crimes such as:
- Sexual Offenses(includes all serious sexual offenses, and particularly, no sex crimes with juvenile victims)
- Drug Trafficking—Intent to Deliver and Delivery of Narcotics
- Assault with a deadly weapon and/or serious injury and/or history of criminal violence
- Burglary of a Residence with person present(with limited exceptions such as: Burglary of a parent/relative’s home where victim consents)
- Robbery w/violence, weapon, and/or physical injury
- VUFA—carrying without a license, or person not to possess (with very limited exception, ie: attempted suicide without endangering others).
- Arson(where the crime is sophisticated, the motive is financial, the person is not attempting to commit suicide and/or someone is injured)
Periodically, certain cases may be reviewed on a case by case basis depending on the totality of the facts and circumstances of each case:
- Aggravated Assault and Robbery (but no guns present/used, no serious injury, no serious actual or threatened injury, etc)
- Arson(not excluded as indicated above; attempted suicide by fire without danger to others, structures—no person present, little damage/ restitution)
- False information on application for firearm
- DUI (Generally excluded except for first offense, no serious MVC violations)
Generally speaking the following factors are considered:
¨ Was a weapon possessed or used?
¨ Did the victim suffer a serious injury? Serious property loss or damage?
¨ How “sophisticated” was the crime?
¨ To what extent did the defendant’s mental illness play a role in the case?
¨ What do the victim and police officers think about MHC?
What can a defendant expect to occur subsequent to sentencing in Veterans Court, in terms of supervision and compliance with the program and the individual’s sentence?
v Subsequent to a defendant’s plea of guilty or non jury conviction, a sentence of Probation, or county jail time with permission for parole to Electronic Monitoring or a Program, or both, is imposed with the condition that the Defendant MUST follow the VC Service Plan, including, but not limited to:
- Comply with all aspects of individualized service plan
- Must take prescribed medications (periodically, if medication is refused, court will order injectable medication, or request that medication be administered in the courtroom)
- Attend all recommended/ordered treatment
- Refrain from use of Illegal Substances, Alcohol
- Urine & Drug Screen – routine but random
Conditions of acceptance and/or sentence which become conditions of Probation & the service plan might include requirements such as:
- Comply with the plan put in place by Veterans Justice Outreach program through the VA, which may include any number of programs available for and specifically tailored to veterans. Additionally a VJO treatment plan may provide for VA housing or residential programs at a VA facility.
- Anger Management
- Drug & Alcohol Evaluation, Treatment, and Random Testing
- Inpatient Drug Treatment
- No contact or no violent contact with the victim or witnesses
- Electronic Monitoring
- Parenting Classes
- Any other course of treatment as determined by the Court, or as requested by the ADA, PD, VA, JRS, and/or Probation Officer and set by the Court
PROCESS OF CASE REFERRAL TO VETERANS COURT
ALL VC referrals must be made in writing using the VC referral forms which can be obtained from the VA, DA, OCC, or JRS/HHS, and returned to the indicated contact at OCC or the VA.
Referral questions also may be answered or referral forms obtained by calling the District Attorney VC Attorney Debra Barnisin Lange at 412-350-5519, DA VC paralegal at 412-350-4430, or VC’s designated defense counsel representative, Kirsha Weyandt, Office of Conflict Counsel, at 412-350-3850.
What is the progression of events when a case is referred, accepted, sentenced and monitored in Veterans Court?
¨ The VA assesses each Defendant referred to VC to determine if Defendant has qualifying military service, Axis I diagnosis, and gauges defendant’s interest in VC participation. If Defendant has qualifying military service but does not qualify for VA benefits, the service plan/treatment side of the case will be referred to JRS/OBH, and a letter of VA non-coverage of the individual will be provided.
¨ Defendant’s consent to the program is verified. Consent is an essential initial determination, as VC is not only a voluntary program, but participants fare poorly when not predisposed to cooperating with the program (conversely, those who choose to participate and subsequently refuse to cooperate can be, and have been, removed from the program and transferred back to regular court where probation can be revoked and defendant is resentenced).
¨ VA or JRS/OBH begins support and preliminary treatment or placement referral to stabilize defendant during the VC acceptance process and prior to the plea/trial date
¨ A referral meeting is held at a minimum of once a month where the VA, VC District Attorney (DA), VC Defense representative (OCC), and VC JRS/OBH representative review the case and make a determination as to whether the case will be accepted into VC (based on the stated eligibility criteria)
¨ The Defendant and/or defendant’s attorney are informed of the acceptance/rejection of the case by a member of the VC Team
¨ Defendant is permitted to have a non-jury trial on the VC accepted case before the VC judge; however, certain types of cases are not accepted into VC unless defendant agrees to plead guilty. These cases include but are not limited to domestic violence, cases with elderly victims, etc.
¨ After the Defendant pleads/is convicted NJ in VC and sentenced into the program, he/she will receive a subpoena for the first Reinforcement Hearing Date and will be assigned a Probation Officer, as well as be assigned a VC Mentor.
¨ VC sentencing parameters are set with the understanding that someone who does well, complies with treatment, and is generally successful within the program will be graduated and the case closed at the earliest from 50%-70% of the original sentence. In order to have a sufficient portion of the sentence served and as incentive for a defendant to excel in VC, defendants are offered ‘graduation’ from the program and early termination of the probation upon successful completion of approximately 50-70% of their probation if fully compliant.
¨ Range of sentences imposed in VC are generally in the range of, but are not limited to: a) the longest sentence imposed of 11 ½ to 23 months county jail plus 5 years probation, and b) the shortest sentence we impose of 2 years probation. Jail sentences are capped at 11 ½ – 23 months because a sentence of 1-2 years must be served at the state penitentiary; defendants so incarcerated would not be eligible for Electronic Monitoring or other forms of treatment release.
¨ Once sentence is imposed, VC Reinforcement Hearings typically occur every thirty (30) days, but may be extended to sixty (60) or ninety (90) day intervals depending upon the Defendant’s progress and success in the program. Defendants who are complying with the program, attending all required appointments and testing clean on drug screens are generally stepped down in the reporting process to less court reviews and less frequent probation and behavioral health supervision. Defendants who are testing positive for drugs on random testing, and/or are otherwise not doing well or not complying with their service plan are stepped up in reporting to court (reviews) and/or reporting with probation and JRS/behavioral health support.
¨ During the course of a defendant’s supervision, the VC team members are expected to keep the court and the VC team apprised of an individual’s progress by email (we use an email tree, so all team members get all status updates on all defendants). Team members are required to give status updates if a defendant is not doing well, and the VC team then addresses the situation with an ‘emergency review’ before the court. VC sometimes has defendants who are doing poorly or not complying, increase reporting to probation or the court, plus additional drug testing.
¨ If the Defendant violates their sentence or fails to follow the Service Plan, defendant is ordered to appear for an Emergency Review hearing or a Negative Reinforcement Hearing at which sanctions may include:
- Increased reporting to probation
- Increased drug testing
- Defendant may be sent to jail for an afternoon or may remain incarcerated for longer periods up to several months depending on the severity of the violation
- Defendant may be remanded to an inpatient treatment program
- Defendant may be placed on Electronic Monitoring
- Defendant may have the current probationary period revoked, and an extended period imposed
- Defendant may incur a curfew or loss of liberties
Once an individual is sufficiently compliant again, reporting is stepped down as described above.
¨ VC defendants are generally remanded to jail only as a last resort attempt to conform their behavior to VC requirements and the individual’s service plan. Defendants who are incarcerated usually fall into one of four categories:
- The defendant’s drug / alcohol use or mental condition is so severe that the judge fears for their life or the safety of the community. This swift intervention is more preventive than punitive. Generally, as soon as a treatment plan is developed, the defendant is released to an appropriate program. If a defendant’s mental condition is serious the Judge may order them to Torrance State Hospital for treatment.
- The defendant is MIA, not reporting as required to probation, not staying in contact with JRS, not reporting to Court for reviews, etc. A warrant is issued for said defendants. Once picked up on the warrant, they will be transported to court for the next available review. Inquiry is made regarding their non-compliance, and the VA or JRS is consulted regarding appropriate treatment. Defendant is usually released from jail into an appropriate program.
- The defendant engages in undesired behavior ear-marked by deceitful, manipulative, or uncivil behavior toward the court. These participants are often remanded to the jail for a short period of time (a week or less), and then immediately brought back to court to answer for their actions. Defendants are not told how long they will remain at the jail.
- The defendant is continually and substantially non-compliant with the terms of their service plan, demonstrates no improvement, and demonstrates no desire to improve. The Judge may remove them from VC, revoke their probation, and resentence them to county or state time. On occasion, the Court simply removes them from MHC and closes interest in their case. This may be because the person has already served a significant amount of time in jail, because they have numerous pending charges and are looking at time on those cases, and/or the defendant has been given a significant sentence by another judge.
¨ The Defendant is to be closely supervised by the VC Probation Officer, and will be subject to reporting requirements and random drug and alcohol screening.
¨ The Probation Officer will monitor the case until the defendant graduates, is closed out, or the probation expires.
¨ Defendant may graduate early if doing well and stabilized, but under no circumstances prior to serving one half to two thirds of their probationary sentence. As an incentive for a defendant to excel in VC, defendants are offered ‘graduation’ from the program and early termination of the sentence upon successful completion of a minimum of 50% to 70% of their probation if fully compliant.
¨ Defendant may be revoked and removed from the Program if failing to comply and show amenability to treatment. Defendants who do not do well generally do the entire term of their sentence: a defendant who does not comply after repeated attempts to work with them have failed may additionally be removed from the program and sent back to the original courtroom for resentencing (sentence revoked, and a new sentence entered in the same manner as a probation violation).
¨ Most VC participants will be with the court for no more than one to two years supervision. Because most of the participants are dual diagnosis with drug and alcohol problems, VC prefers not to take cases where supervision would be less than two years because that is insufficient time to work with a participant and to anticipate at least one relapse. If the participant does well, the judge in his discretion may determine that the defendant will only serve one half or one year of that sentence (50% as described above), but if a defendant does poorly, has not been amenable to treatment, or has not followed the court’s supervision and reporting requirements, VC will have a minimum of at least two years supervision.
¨ Upon motion of any VC team member, and successful completion of no less than one half to two thirds of their sentence, the Court, in its discretion, may “graduate” the participant from MHC, and sign an order formally closing the defendant’s case(s). The announcement is made in open court with the client present. The graduate is given a military style “challenge coin” which carries special significance and meaning for military men and women, and identifies their substantial accomplishment in successfully completing the Veterans Court program. Additionally, the graduate is offered an opportunity to express their thoughts about their Veterans Court experience and successes. Graduations are well received by the other court participants, and are often cause for applause and congratulations in the courtroom. These mini-ceremonies are done in open court as an inspiration to other Veterans Court participants.
Materials authored by :
Debra Barnisin-Lange, Allegheny County Assistant District Attorney, Veterans Court
Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office
436 Grant Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15219
Allegheny County Veterans Court Team Contact Information
The Honorable John A. Zottola, Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas
Allegheny County Courthouse, 521
436 Grant Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15219
Debra Barnisin-Lange, Assistant District Attorney, Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office
301 Courthouse, 436 Grant Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15219
Charlene Christmas, Division Supervisor, or Robert O’Brien, Veterans Court Probation Specialist
Allegheny County Probation Department
564 Forbes Ave, Suite 1212
Pittsburgh, PA 15219
Keather Likins, VJO Specialist, Veterans Justice Outreach Program
Healthcare for Homeless Veterans (HCHV) Program
1010 Delafield Road, Building 69, 2C-108
Pittsburgh, PA 15215
Kirsha Weyandt, Allegheny County Office of Conflict Counsel
429 Forbes Avenue, Suite 1405
Pittsburgh, PA 15219
Leigh Richardson Bergstresser
Justice Related Services, Department of Human Services
One Smithfield Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15222
Albert H. Mercer, Executive Director, and Mike Bodis, Mentor Coordinator
Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania
2417 East Carson Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15203-2111
Office: 412-481-8200 EMAIL: firstname.lastname@example.org
Attorney Steven Townsend