In Veterans Court, former service members fight new battle
Areas of Focus | 2018/08/25 09:36
Sheriff's deputies steered three handcuffed men into Veterans Court one day this summer. The backs of their red jumpsuits read "Allegheny County Jail." One prisoner had doe eyes and long hair, resembling pictures of Christ.

He wore shackles around his ankles.

When he stood before Judge John Zottola, his eyes cast down, the judge cocked his head with a "What are we going to do with you?" expression on his face.

A probation officer said the young man, an Iraq War combat veteran, had absconded -- a word that in court means fled -- while under house arrest. The judge ordered a transfer to a Bath, N.Y., treatment center for veterans who suffer post-traumatic stress and addiction.

Seeing a veteran shackled in his own country is particularly unsettling when you realize jail may be where he is most safe. But most veterans in this court are not incarcerated. They have an out, as long as they check in with the probation officer, keep their records and urine clean and show up for court. The process of getting through three phases of good behavior takes a year.

Allegheny County Veterans Treatment Court is an acknowledgement that veterans deserve special consideration when they land in the criminal justice system. They are diverted into a side stream of the larger channel. If they have post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury on top of their violations, their treatment team can work to untangle these issues.

Judge Zottola, who meets before court with the parties of each day's hearing, describes it as "a problem solving court, with positive rewards and regular sanctions."

His courtroom hums with collaborative spirit. Before he calls the room to order, people mill about, sharing information. The hearings, too, are more casual than typical court proceedings.

"We are a team and we take a team approach to assist you," Judge Zottola says as he opens his sessions. "Please take advantage of that help.


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