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Tampa’s Veterans Treatment Court sets a national bar

The specialized version of drug court puts veterans’ rehabilitation at the forefront. It is becoming a national model.

TAMPA — Almost 80 percent of prisoners in the United States are re-arrested within six years of their release, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

In its six years of operation, Tampa’s Veterans Treatment Court — a specialized courtroom for jailed veterans struggling with mental illness and substance abuse due to their military service — has reported a recidivism rate of just 10 percent.

That’s a statistic Hillsborough Circuit Judge Michael Scionti shared at the first Florida regional Veterans Treatment Court conference held here last week. It’s also why state and national leaders are looking at Hillsborough’s veterans court as a model for the nation as Congress seeks to expand financial support for such programs.

“You set the tone of your courtroom,” Scionti told conference attendees. “Do you want retribution or salvation?”

For the last three years Scionti, a U.S. Army veteran, has presided over felonies and misdemeanors committed by fellow veterans who need rehabilitation and treatment yet may not seek help on their own. The goal is to put them on a path toward recovery, with the possibility of getting their charges dismissed and record expunged.

It’s about a 9-month process and requires the veteran to stay off drugs and alcohol, attend doctor appointments, engage with Department of Veteran Affairs service providers and others to look for employment, and participate in community service hours with veteran service organizations.

Scionti relies on retired Col. DJ Reyes to get it all done.

Reyes runs the veterans court mentorship program, which uses retired veterans who volunteer to hold participants accountable for following court orders. They often serve as confidants to their mentees as they struggle with drug addiction and suicidal thoughts. Reyes and other senior mentors set high standards for volunteers and run the program like a military operation.

It’s this level of structure that breaks through to veterans like David Silva, 47.

Silva, a U.S. Army combat veteran from Operation Iraqi Freedom, has a post-traumatic stress disorder that led to a domestic violence charge and two counts of violently resisting arrest after a squad car’s radio triggered his wartime memories and the arrest took a turn.

Standing in an orange jumpsuit before Scionti in January 2017, Silva wasn’t sure what he was getting into. But when Scionti spoke in military language, he felt at ease.

Over the course of the year, Silva came to rely on his mentor, Senior Master Sgt. James Salgado, who reminded him that his doctor’s appointments were court-ordered and as a good soldier, he knew to follow commands.

Salgado was there for him when he had doubts. Salgado was there when he wanted to take his own life, talking him out of it. Salgado was there when Silva appeared before Scionti in a suit for his graduation from the program in December.

While his mental health remains an obstacle, Silva credits the veterans court for not only saving his life but giving him a support system for the years to come.

“They’re just a phone call away,” he said.

As Florida moves to open a veterans court in all 20 judicial circuits, Reyes and Scionti planned and hosted last week’s state conference and workshop to help answer any questions judges and mentors may have about the process.

Judge Edward Scott of the 5th Judicial Circuit in Marion County wanted to know what relationship a judge should have with the court mentors. (Mentors offer updates on a veteran’s progress but they maintain a confidential non-privileged relationship with their mentee).

Judge George Angeliadias of the 5th Judicial Circuit in Hernando County wanted to learn about funding opportunities, given that Hernando’s bed space for indigent veterans is limited. (There are grants available and lobbying groups that can advocate on their behalf at the state Legislature.)

Mentors in the room wanted to learn more about how Reyes and others screen potential volunteers. (The Tampa court has a mentor assessment board that puts applicants through a gauntlet of testing.)

It’s not the first time Reyes and Scionti have shared their best practices.

Just a few weeks prior to the Tampa workshop, Lawton Nuss, Chief Justice of the Kansas Supreme Court, invited them to share their insights at a state judicial conference.

Kansas only has one veterans court. Florida has about 34. There are more than 450 in the U.S.

As more court systems look to add or bolster this specialized program, they keep coming across a major issue: funding.

Nuss noted that dedicated personnel would need to be hired or assigned. Housing, transportation and treatment costs would need to be accounted for. And right now there’s no federal standard or central funding source to get it all done.

It’s why U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, introduced the Veteran Treatment Court Coordination Act. It would create a veterans treatment court program within the Department of Justice in coordination with the Department of Veteran Affairs, and offer the federal funding and standards needed for every state, local and tribal government interested in running one.

The bipartisan bill would be a lifeline for Florida’s veterans courts as well since they currently rely on Florida lawmakers to oversee standards and funding. The bill, which has already passed the U.S. House of Representatives, would place the onus on courts to run things.

Reyes, Scionti and others hope the bill will be signed into law later this month.