Veterans court bill gets initial approval

Posted Feb. 14, 2012, at 5:49 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill that would create a special treatment court for veterans dealing with drug addiction and mental illness was approved unanimously Tuesday by the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Maeghan Maloney, D-Augusta, would authorize the chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to establish veteran treatment courts and to seek federal funding for these courts.

The proposed courts would operate similar to county drug courts but would serve veterans exclusively.

“This is an important first step towards meeting the unique needs of our veterans,” Maloney said in a statement after the vote. “The legislation will now move forward so we can stop treating some veterans like criminals instead of heroes.”

The bill, LD 1698, now goes to the House and Senate for votes.

Maloney’s bill was presented in memory of former Army Ranger Justin Crowley-Smilek of Farmington, who served in Afghanistan. Crowley-Smilek suffered from combat stress and physical injuries from service and was killed in a confrontation with the police last November.

During a public hearing late last month, a number of people testified about the benefits of a treatment court specifically for veterans. Maloney said one in five veterans nationally report symptoms of mental illness and Maine has approximately 150,000 veterans.

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

“We must continue to honor military service members by providing them with an alternative to incarceration,” she said. “They need proper treatment for mental health and substance abuse problems resulting from military service.”

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.

Maloney also said she plans to work with U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud’s office to gain federal funding for the program. Michaud serves as the ranking member on the health subcommittee of the House’s Veterans Affairs Committee.

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