Hillsborough County’s Veteran’s Treatment Court – Never Forgetting Those Who Served
“The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the Veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.”
-President George Washington
As you may recall from my April Chair’s Choice Newsletter article, Tampa is home to an estimated 100,000 veterans. All men and women who have proudly served our country through one of the various branches of service. While most veterans are strengthened by their military service, for some, the combat experience has presented significant challenges including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), substance and alcohol abuse, and mental health issues.
Over the course of time, veterans from across the Nation, including in our community, facing these various emotional, mental and physical challenges found themselves involved in the judicial system and, unfortunately, part of a vicious cycle of recidivism without any real hope of breaking free. That was until one person made a difference.
In 2006, a jurist in Buffalo, New York, Judge Robert Russell, noticed a sad, lethargic veteran in his mental health court and asked two veterans who happened to be in court that day to speak with him. After the meeting, the veteran changed. He stood taller and looked more confident. He said he was going to try harder to work on his problems and challenges. Judge Russell reasoned from that simple encounter that peer support from fellow veterans could go a long way to helping veteran defendants in the criminal justice system. Reaching out and incorporating support from the local Veteran’s Affairs Hospital, over the next two years, Judge Russell laid the groundwork for what would be the nation’s first, official Veteran’s Treatment Court. The results were almost immediate and began a nationwide expansion of the concept throughout multiple jurisdictions – including our own Hillsborough County.
The Hillsborough County Veteran’s Treatment Court was started in 2013. The core mission of the Hillsborough VTC is “[t]o help identify, treat, rehabilitate, and to seamlessly reintegrate the veteran back into the community where he or she earlier swore to protect and defend . . .“ The program is governed by a coordinated strategy of legal and medical professionals whose goal is to promote public safety and reduce recidivism through a non-adversarial, problem solving approach that provides a continuum of treatment and rehabilitative services for veterans struggling with PTSD, TBI, mental illness, substance abuse disorder, or psychological problems.
To enter into the Hillsborough VTC program, the potential candidate: 1) must be a veteran or active service member; 2) must be facing charges that are non-violent, classified as misdemeanors or up to second degree felonies and must stem from a service-related disability, disorder or condition; 3) must agree to participate in the program; and 4) must not have previously enrolled in, and unsuccessfully completed, the program in the past.
The Hillsborough VTC integrates alcohol, drug treatment and mental health services with judicial case processing. Using a non-adversarial approach, prosecution and defense counsel promote public safety while protecting the veteran’s due process rights. Eligible veterans are quickly identified and promptly diverted from the general judicial system and placed in the VTC program. Through the program, the veteran receives access to a variety of services, including alcohol, drug, mental health and other related treatment and rehabilitation services. Abstinence is monitored by frequent alcohol and drug testing. Ongoing judicial interaction with each veteran is essential to the individual veteran’s success in the program. Close monitoring and evaluation measures how well program goals are achieved for the given veteran.
Peer mentorship is the key to the success of Hillsborough’s VTC. The program boasts a well-established and committed VTC support network which connects each veteran in the program to a specific, dedicated mentor – all of which are veterans themselves. Thereafter, Hillsborough VTC’s well-structured and coordinated support mechanisms ensure that each veteran that is accepted into the program has every chance possible to succeed as long as that veteran commits to the program, its strict guidelines and responsibilities.
Currently there are approximately 75 veterans in the Hillsborough VTC (in 2019, over 200 veterans were on the docket). Hillsborough’s VTC remains one of the largest VTCs in the State). The program has over 50 currently serving VTC mentors (over 130 volunteers have participated in the program) who are from all military service branches and ranks (active, reserve, retired and civilian DOD personnel). Since 2013, the VTC graduation rate (referencing successful completion of the VTC program which can generally range from 9 to 18 months) is over 90%.
The Hillsborough VTC’s success has made it a model for other programs across the country. In February 2016, VTC was selected as part of a federal pilot program to help improve VTCs nationwide. The pilot program was developed by the Center for Court Innovation in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Corrections.
One of the key drivers of the Hillsborough VTC, and in no small part a core reason for its success, is Colonel D. J. Reyes (U.S. Army, retired). Col. Reyes is a tireless advocate for our veterans here in Hillsborough County. In 2013, seeing a need for mentorship support at the VTC, Col. Reyes established the VTC’s veteran mentor program and continues to oversee the program as well as participating as a mentor himself. Col. Reyes is active both locally and nationally as an advocate for the continued growth of VTCs and is intimately involved with the State of Kansas’s efforts to establish their state wide VTC program based on the Hillsborough County model.
COL. Reyes (U.S. Army, retired)
The current success of the VTC in Hillsborough County is also the result of the dedicated Judges who have presided over the Court over the various years since its inception. All of these jurists have served our Country themselves and therefore, know the value of our veterans and the ability of these men and women to dig deep within themselves and, with support from their fellow veterans, find that drive to improve and succeed. These judges are:
- Judge Richard A. Weis, LTC U.S. Army Reserve (retired) ;
- Judge Gregory P. Holder, Ret. COL., U.S. Air Force Reserve, U.S.M.A. Class of 1975; and
- Judge Michael J. Scionti, LTC(P), U.S. Army Reserve (currently presiding over the VTC).
As Americans, it is incumbent on each of us to remember our veterans, their commitment and their sacrifices. Incumbent on each of us, when we can, to do our part to support and give back to these brave men and woman who all, at one time or another, volunteered to give everything they had to protect the freedom we all so enjoy. As Hillsborough County citizens, we should take great pride in what the men and women of the Hillsborough County Veteran’s Treatment Court do each and every day to fulfill our joint obligation to never forget those who serve and who have served our great Nation.
“It’s about how we treat our veterans every single day of the year. It’s about making sure they have the care they need and the benefits that they’ve earned when they come home. It’s about serving [our veterans] as well as [they have] served the United States of America.”
-President Barack Obama