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New court for veterans aims for compassionate assistance

For some time, Pasco and Pinellas prosecutors have funneled veterans arrested on drug crimes through a special unit of the court system, recognizing that military service and combat can create particular needs.

This week, the 6th Judicial Circuit expanded that approach to minor crimes. A new Veterans Mediation Unit will divert some veterans to either pre-trial intervention or probation, while connecting them with social services.

"We seem to have more and more veterans with PTSD and substance-type abuses," said Chief Judge J. Thomas McGrady, "and there is a gap in services available to them because they don't fit in traditional models."

Sometimes, a difficult transition back to civilian life can lead to low-level crime, he said.

"I think there's a lot of people trained to be tough and rugged," McGrady said. "They might not feel they need help or might not want to accept it. I'm optimistic that it can be valuable."

Unveiled by State Attorney Bernie McCabe's office, the new veterans unit will be a collaboration among several local agencies — the court system, the Public Defender's Office, local health care organizations, charities and Stetson University.

Assistant State Attorney Chris Sprowls will oversee the unit, expected to launch Sept. 1. It will mainly cover veterans charged with misdemeanors and third-degree felonies.

"We see that they need help," Sprowls said. "We have a moral responsibility to step up and serve those in need."

The unit will be different "because it's aimed at aiding a veteran in the complete sense," said Michelle Ardabily, who works in the administrative office of the courts. A main goal will be matching veterans with mentors, with the aid of a Catholic organization. Veterans working in the courts will also help.

Money for the unit came from a federal grant and a state grant, Sprowls said.

Right now, he said, about 5 percent of people who come through the court system identify themselves as veterans. However, he thinks there may be many more.

More than 100,000 veterans reside in Pinellas County, according to the Pinellas County Office of Veteran Services, and Pasco County is home to more than 54,000.

McCabe said he expects the Public Defender's Office will bring in the majority of eligible veterans. Starting Sept. 1, lawyers for these defendants can go to the courthouse, either in Pinellas or Pasco, and request a form to fill out.

Circuit Judge Shawn Crane will oversee the court in Pasco, Circuit Judge Dee Anna Farnell in Pinellas.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Contact Jon Silman at (727) 869-6229, or @Jonsilman1 on Twitter.