Veterans, lawmakers hail new veterans’ treatment court signed into law

BY RAMONA DU HOUX

March 16th, 2012 

Rep. Maeghan Maloney asks volunteers to help veterans to contact her during a press conference on a new law creating a special treatment court for veterans suffering from mental illness and substance abuse. Maloney is joined by fellow bill sponsors Rep. David Cotta, Sen. Margaret Craven, Rep. David Webster, Rep. Sheryl Briggs. Photo by Ramona du Houx

Maine veterans and law enforcement officials today joined Democratic and Republican lawmakers at the State House to mark the final passage of a bill that will create a treatment court for veterans suffering from drug addiction and mental illness. The bill was signed into law by the governor on Wednesday.

“I’m honored to be surrounded today by Maine veterans as we celebrate the passage of this critical veterans’ treatment court legislation,” said Rep. Maeghan Maloney, D-Augusta, the sponsor of the bill. “Our veterans have put their lives on the line for our freedom and safety. Now we will be able to give them the targeted help that so many of them need as they return home.”

Veterans’ treatment courts operate similar to drug courts, but serve only military veterans suffering from substance abuse and mental illness. Under the new law, the court would dedicate a day for hearing cases involving veterans. Veteran support groups and representatives from Togus veterans’ hospital would be present at the court to intervene with assistance and provide support and counsel throughout sentencing.

This bill authorizes the Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court to establish veteran treatment courts. It also authorizes the State Court Administrator to seek federal funding for these courts.

Maine Congressman Mike Michaud has been working with Maloney to support the measure and to help the state gain federal funding for the program.

“In other states, State Veterans’ Courts have proven very beneficial to our veterans,” said Congressman Michaud. “In addition to providing greater access to VA services, these courts have seen a significant reduction in rates of recidivism.”

The bill was presented in memory of former Army Ranger Justin Crowley-Smilek of Farmington, who served his country in Afghanistan. Crowley-Smilek suffered from combat stress and physical injuries from service in Afghanistan. He was shot in a deadly confrontation with the police.

Ruth Crowley, Justin’s mother, spoke during the press conference.

“My son, a U.S. Army Ranger, was shot and killed — not in Afghanistan, where he served his country, but here, in his home state of Maine. Our tragedy brought attention to the terrible unseen impact of war on our veterans. While our family is grieving, I take comfort that Justin’s death may now help save the lives of many veterans like him.”

There are 150,000 veterans in Maine. Nationally, one in five veterans report symptoms of mental disorder.

“Veteran courts do work,” said Kennebec County Sheriff Randy Liberty, who served in Iraq and spoke during the press conference. “The wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan placed a tremendous strain on military personnel and their families. As a result of their service many servicemen have returned home, forever changed by their combat-related experience. As an appreciative nation, we are duty-bound to assist them with their transition home. A veterans’ treatment court is part of that solution.”

Liberty said there are currently 88 veteran courts in the country and that the number is likely to grow to over a 100 next year.

During the press conference, long-time veteran advocate American Legion Post 10 Adjutant Don Simoneau said it was with great “sadness and pride” that he thanked lawmakers and the governor for working together to help get the bill passed into law.

“These veterans are suffering from unseen wounds,” said Simoneau. “We must get them the help they need.”

Rep. Maloney has been asking for volunteers to help out at the veterans’ court and mentioned that dozens of people have already contacted her to volunteer. Maloney asked people to contact her at maeghanformaine@gmail.com or 513-7248 if they wish to be connected to volunteer opportunities.