Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era
Veterans: Court has success
Courting veterans Speciality court has success, but officials want more participants BY BRETT HAMBRIGHT, Staff Writer
Lancaster County's newest specialty court has its success stories. No one argues with that.
Several local veterans' lives have been altered -- or, in some cases, transformed -- during the inaugural year of Veterans Court.
The program's first graduate, 64-year-old Carl Metzinger, calls it "the best thing that could have happened to me."
Another participant, Terry, a Vietnam vet who didn't want his last name used, is finally sober after an enduring battle with substance abuse.
"He'd been in the jungle the past 40 years," said Lancaster County Judge Jeffery Wright, who presides over the court. "He's just now coming home."
What's missing, court leaders say, are more opportunities to help veterans.
A study of Lancaster's latest treatment court 14 months after it started shows the program has a high success rate, but is lacking qualified candidates.
Many who applied to the court have been denied because of their history or the nature of their charges.
Some others who are accepted can't handle the program's strict criteria and drop out.
Including Metzinger, nine veterans have been what officials call "successful" in the program. Metzinger had his graduation ceremony last week; eight others are in line for their ceremonies.
"Absolutely, we want more (veterans in the program)," Wright said. "Part of what we have to do is establish our credibility."
Of those accepted, 14 actually started the program's regimen. Others were accepted, but changed their minds when they reviewed the requirements.
Of the 14 who started the program, four were dismissed for noncompliance and one died.
"We struggled as a team with deciding who should be coming into the program," said Teri Miller-Landon, who oversees the county's treatment courts, including its Mental Health and Drug courts.
District Attorney Craig Stedman said, "It is just getting started. It does take time to get any new program started."
Stedman is tasked with deciding which defendants are allowed into the program. He's balancing a person's rehabilitative needs while keeping community safety in mind.
In January, all parties met and tweaked the entrance criteria in hopes of getting more vets into the court.
Perhaps the biggest change is a modification of sentencing outcomes for graduates. Initially, the court offered either dismissal of minor charges or a reduction of the overall sentence upon completion. The program is now expanded to offer reduction or dismissal of more serious charges, which could result in more applicants.
Still, the district attorney won't budge on certain offenses.
The following crimes, according to Stedman, automatically disqualify vets from entering the program: first-degree felonies, homicides, sex offenses, high-level drug-dealing, DUI offenses that require state-prison penalties and felony possession of a firearm.
Defense attorney Cory Miller said that final offense kept a client from getting in.
The client, a convicted felon charged in 2011 with possessing an antique revolver, applied twice and was denied twice, according to Miller. The man is a Vietnam vet who was honorably discharged from the Army in 1970 after earning numerous medals, Miller said.
"This is a guy that would be ideal," Miller said. "He's the kind of person we should want in this program.
"He has issues that were a direct result of his service in Vietnam," Miller said. "I think it could be a great program if we can provide the help to people that need it."
Stedman has said, "We are looking for veterans who will have a good chance of successfully completing the program and are likely to not re-offend."
Wright said none of the eight on track to graduate has committed new crimes.
"Just because you're a vet, you're not getting a free pass," Stedman said.
Court leaders say they agree with that sentiment.
"We want people who made bad decisions, but aren't bad people," Miller-Landon said. "We sometimes don't learn that right away."
All sides seem to agree that those who do get in are getting a lot out of it.
Many vet offenders' legal problems are alcohol-related, officials said. Metzinger was one of them, being charged in 2011 with a road-rage incident in West Hempfield.
"I'm not the bad guy that I was," the Air Force vet said. "I finally dealt with issues that I didn't want to deal with at other times.
"I wish I would've had some place to go (before), some place to rely on."
But Metzinger's success didn't come without a few hitches along the way.
"We expect them all to stumble," said Matt Bryner, Vets Court coordinator. "If they don't stumble, we question whether they needed it to begin with."
Metzinger credits his mentor in the program, Charles Bonner, with providing the "strength in my recovery."
Each participant is partnered with a volunteer mentor -- typically a vet -- who closely monitors the participant's progress and reports to Wright weekly.
Metzinger plans to assume that role after he officially completes the program.
"Now I can give back," he said.
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