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Federal veteran treatment court bill will help Tampa program

Since 2017, the Tampa veterans treatment court has reported a less than 10 percent recidivism rate.

A bill to create a federal funding source and coordination office for diversionary court programs for military veterans is on its way to the president’s desk.

The Veteran Treatment Court Coordination Act, authored by U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, would establish a program within the Department of Justice, in coordination with the Department of Veterans Affairs, to provide grants, training and technical assistance to help state, local and tribal governments provide veterans treatment courts, according to Chloe Kessock, a spokeswoman from Crist’s office.

“I couldn’t be more pleased to see the federal government provide resources for what I see is the future of our criminal justice system,” said Hillsborough Circuit Court Judge Michael Scionti, who oversees Tampa’s veterans treatment court.

After a back and forth between the chambers, a final version of the bill passed both houses on Monday, Kessock said, and is expected to be signed on or before next Friday.

Tampa’s veterans treatment court, created in 2013 with about a dozen veterans, has served as a model for the state and has been featured at judicial workshops across the nation. The Tampa program has had a less than 10 percent recidivism rate since 2017, when Scionti began overseeing the court and the program started collecting data, he said. Today, about 115 veterans are in the program.

“We are a treatment court, not a punishment court,” Scionti said.

Eligible veterans charged with nonviolent felonies and misdemeanors go through a five-phase program that lasts at least nine months, but typically more than a year, Scionti said. The program assesses and treats any mental health or substance abuse disorders, with the goal of reintegrating the veterans into their communities.

The vets’ charges may be dismissed after successful completion, Scionti said.

Scionti is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves who served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is commander of the 139th Legal Operations Detachment, and said he understands the issues at play.

He has friends who took their own lives or who have mental illness as a result of their military service, he said. And in his court, he said, he gets to know the men and women who need help turning their lives around.

“We’re like a family,” he said.

The Tampa program includes a volunteer mentor component led by retired Army Col. D.J. Reyes and comprised of veterans with honorable discharges. It encourages veterans to stay in touch with their mentors, who help hold them accountable and provide a support system.

Marine Corps veteran Camellia Simmons, 38, experienced this support.

She landed in the program due to a charge of driving under the influence. At the time, she was separating from her husband, medicating with alcohol and dealing with post traumatic stress order, she said. The program helped stabilize her life.

“It was definitely for the best that I landed in veterans treatment court,” she said. She graduated from the program in 2016 and is a mentor.

Veterans in the program are guided toward housing programs, employment, education and medical services, all while completing their mandatory community service, Reyes said.

“We’re a one-stop shop,” he said.

In November 2019, Scionti and Reyes led a state workshop for visiting judges, state attorneys, public defenders, mentors and representatives from the Department of Veteran Affairs, who were learning how to better run their programs. More than half of Florida’s counties have a veteran treatment court, Reyes said, as do about 45 states.

Reyes, who advocated in Washington, D.C., for the national bill, called it a great first step. He remains concerned about whether it will provide enough funding for the programs.

“That is our next major hurdle that we will constantly be working on with Congress,” Reyes said.

For the past few months, Scionti has been running his courtroom remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic. For some veterans with extreme anxiety, the video teleconferencing has helped them open up more than when they stood physically before him. But others hope to return to in-person court where they can observe their peers interact with Scionti.

“Developing treatment plans, rehabilitating individuals to foster their reintegration, at the same time promoting public safety by lowering crime rates — those are long-term objectives of any criminal justice program,” Scionti said, “but we are seeing it in a veterans treatment court program.”