TAMPA — Hillsborough County Judge Richard Weis is in a better position than most to understand the unique stresses veterans can encounter in civilian life.
A member of the Army Reserve since 1991 and an Air Force veteran, Weis was actually deployed in Afghanistan in 2009 when Gov. Charlie Crist appointed him to the county bench.
"I understand that behaviors considered an asset in the combat theater can lead to involvement in the criminal justice system," Weis said.
Beginning Oct. 1, Weis will oversee the newest misdemeanor division in Hillsborough County court — Division V, or veterans court. It's a court that will allow honorably discharged veterans to get qualifying misdemeanor charges dismissed if they successfully complete a treatment and assessment program.
The treatment would be provided under existing Department of Veterans programs for veterans suffering from mental illness, traumatic-brain injury, substance abuse or other psychological problems.
Veterans must both volunteer to enter the court and be otherwise eligible to receive VA care.
At least initially, the court will be limited to about 25 veterans at any time. Weis said a pilot court program during the last year was successfully completed with nine veterans.
For Weis, Division V is the culmination of two years of effort and collaboration with the VA, prosecutors, public defenders and court administrators.
"I understand that a 'warrior ethos' sometimes precludes veterans from seeking available assistance and treatment," Weis said in an email response to questions. "I understand that there are veterans struggling to get their lives in order due to alcohol or substance abuse, post-traumatic stress and other medical and psychological issues which can be directly traced to their military service and combat experiences."
He said the division is being created with existing resources without additional funding from the county, state or federal government.
A range of misdemeanor charges are eligible for admission to the court. They include disorderly conduct, possession of cannabis, possession of drug paraphernalia, resisting an officer without violence, and trespassing, among others.
Some county or municipal ordinance violations also qualify.
Once successfully completing a treatment program, meeting court conditions that will include status hearings before the judge, the charge or charges will be dropped.
A defendant can be booted from the program by stopping treatment or getting arrested on a new charge, though a new arrest is not an automatic ticket out, according to an administrative order by Chief Judge Manuel Menendez Jr. setting up the court.
If the court is successful, Weis said, it might be expanded in the future. Weis stressed that the court isn't "compromising the safety of the public."
Renee Muratti, a misdemeanor court supervisor for State Attorney Mark Ober's office, said the court will allow veterans to connect with treatment they earned through their service to the nation.
She said the type of qualifying misdemeanors "a lot of the time are associated with homeless people or people close to that situation."
Muratti said veterans who find themselves in the court system often have let VA treatment or counseling lapse.
"For whatever reason," she said, "they've fallen out of connection with the VA and fallen into a connection with the criminal justice system."
Some critics of drug courts have questioned whether it's fair to create a unique class of defendants who earn breaks that aren't available to non-veterans.
"Should the criminal justice system take into account PTSD when it arises from military service but disregard it when it stems from different but nevertheless horrific life experiences?" Mark Silverstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Colorado, said in a 2010 Newsweek article.
But Weis said veterans aren't getting preferential treatment, noting they "are a unique class of individuals or defendants."
"A veterans court is necessary and appropriate because it is designed to identify and treat a unique class of individuals suffering from unique issues stemming from a unique causation for which unique resources are readily available for treatment," the judge said.
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected].