Hillsborough County Judge Richard Weis and Chief Judge Manuel Menendez Jr. deserve applause for establishing a special court division for veterans accused of minor infractions.
Beginning Oct. 1, certain honorably discharged veterans suffering from service-related mental disorders or substance abuse can choose to be diverted into the Misdemeanor Veterans Treatment Court, giving them a chance to have the charges dropped if they undergo treatment and complete the court program.
Weis is a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves who watched veterans with mental issues or substance problems repeatedly return to his courtroom after committing misdemeanors such as disorderly conduct, marijuana possession or panhandling.
A year-long pilot program for veterans eligible for Veterans Affairs services proved so successful that Menendez agreed to establish a Veterans Court similar to those operating in several other Florida counties.
Weis stresses that the veterans are not getting a break on the criminal charges. They must attend court hearings and participate in the assessments and treatment to have the charge dropped. If they fall short, they will be sent to regular court.
Roughly 100,000 veterans live in Hillsborough County, some of whom served in the Middle East and returned with mental traumas that affect their judgment and behavior. Veterans Court, which needs no additional funding from the county or state to operate, is expected to have as many as 25 veterans in the program at any given time.
“Veterans Court is intended to guide the veteran into existing Veterans Administration and community programs and treatment resources to habilitate the veteran,” Weis told the Tribune’s Howard Altman.
The local offices of the state attorney and public defender, and court administrators and the VA also deserve praise for working to establish Veterans Court.
It’s a worthy venture that could make all the difference for many of those who sacrificed to protect our freedoms.