May 22, 2018
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Bill would create alternative sentencing court specifically for veterans

Courtesy photo | BDN
Courtesy photo | BDN
Justin Crowley-Smilek
By Eric Russell, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — Last November, a day before Justin Crowley-Smilek was shot and killed by police, the 28-year-old Farmington native and U.S. Army Ranger who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder appeared before a judge.

Earlier that year, Crowley-Smilek was charged with assault and cultivation of marijuana. The judge, likely sensing that the young man’s diagnoses contributed to those crimes, ordered him to undergo a full psychological evaluation. His family said it was welcome news because they had been trying to get Crowley-Smilek help for months since his return from Afghanistan.

Crowley-Smilek never made it to that evaluation.

In a bizarre incident outside the Farmington police station, Crowley-Smilek approached an officer in a threatening manner while wielding a knife. The officer fired several shots, one of which killed Crowley-Smilek.

Rep. Maeghan Maloney, D-Augusta, said the state of Maine had an opportunity to help the veteran the day before he died.

“And we failed,” she said.

Maloney has submitted a bill, LD 1698, that she hopes will help other veterans like Crowley-Smilek before it’s too late.

The bill would create a special veterans treatment court that takes veterans already enrolled in the many drug courts or co-occurring disorder courts across the state and bring them together at the same time and place.

“Who knows veterans better than veterans?” Maloney said while introducing her bill Tuesday before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

Approximately one in six Mainers is a veteran and approximately one in five veterans report some mental health diagnosis, Maloney said.

In many cases, veterans turn to drugs as a coping mechanism and that often leads to crime. Maine already has a system of drug courts that offer alternatives to jail sentences by requiring participants to undergo counseling and submit to drug tests. If participants don’t meet the requirements, they are then sent to jail.

Maloney said she doesn’t want to create a new system, only to use the existing framework.

If all the veterans enrolled in these courts could meet on the same day and go through counseling together, likely with VA officials on site, they might be have a better chance of succeeding.

Even better, she said, a host of veterans — from recent wars to as far back as World War II — have agreed to serve as volunteer mentors for the program.

“It doesn’t mean you can commit a crime and not face punishment,” Maloney said. “It’s not a get-out-of-jail free card. It’s a second chance.

“They have made mistakes but we can still see them as heroes.”

If the program takes off, Maloney said, her bill has a mechanism to seek federal funding to help support a veterans court. Her proposal does not require any additional state dollars.

Many spoke in favor of the bill during Tuesday’s public hearing, including many veterans. Written testimony also was submitted by Ruth Crowley, mother of Justin Crowley-Smilek.

“Having a court that focuses on these issues would really make a difference,” she wrote. “My son was a sweet young man with a good heart. All he wanted was to be an Army Ranger.”

The bill has been scheduled for a work session on Feb. 14.

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