SOUTH ABINGTON TWP. — Magisterial District Judge Paul Keeler is hopeful a new diversionary program will help veterans who are facing challenges transition back into the community.
Lackawanna County President Judge Michael J. Barrasse selected District Court 45-3-01, consisting of Dalton, Clarks Summit, Clarks Green, La Plume, North Abington Township, West Abington Township, South Abington Township, Glenburn, Waverly, Newton Township and Ransom Township, to pilot the Magisterial Veterans Diversion Program for a year.
The first veterans court in the state of Pennsylvania was established in Lackawanna County in November 2009 by then President Judge Thomas J. Munley and Judge Barrasse with the other treatment courts.
“That (court) is primarily for defendants who commit felonies,” Keeler said. “Since I’ve been elected, I started working closely with Clarks Summit Councilmen Pat Williams and Herman Johnson, who also serve as mentors in the Lackawanna County Veterans Treatment Court, Judge Barrasse and District Judge John J. Mercuri to implement a plan to provide a similar diversionary program for veterans who commit third degree misdemeanors and summary offenses and come in front of the magisterial district judges.”
Barrasse and Keeler will lead a public discussion on the new program at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 26 at Abington Memorial VFW Post 7069, 409 Winola Road, Clarks Summit.
“We envision a three- to six-month diversionary program, depending on the severity of the crime and the details of the individual,” Keeler said. “We’re going to try to promote the program with the defense bar and let the police become aware of it because they are the first line.
“If all goes well with the pilot program, we hope this program will be available throughout all the district courts in the county.”
Keeler believes the culture of the Abingtons makes it a logical location to launch the pilot initiative.
“Part of the process, in addition to getting counseling and treatment through the Department of Veterans Affairs office, will be pairing the defendants with a local veteran as a mentor to help them deal with day-to-day life issues,” Keeler said. “We have a very strong VFW in the Clarks Summit area and I think that’s why our district court is ideally situated to implement this program.”
If an individual is selected as an ideal candidate for the program, they will be referred to Lackawanna County Veterans Justice Outreach Specialist Kim Sapolis-Lacey. The VA will fund the treatment and benefits.
“We’ll also be looking to see what sort of community service or other way they can pay their debt to society for the crime they committed,” Keeler said. “It’s a diversionary program meaning if they comply they will be pleading guilty to the summary offenses. If they successfully complete the program, the guilty plea will be withdrawn and the charges will be dismissed.”
According to Williams, each mentor is assigned a veteran when needs arise.
“The veterans are responsible for calling their mentor at least three times a week to check in,” he said. “Three or four times, I’ve worked with a veteran struggling with different issues and we’ve helped them the best we can.”
Johnson believes the mutual respect between the veteran defendants and their mentors has played a big role in the program’s success at the county level.
“I think they open up a little more because the veteran seeking help is communicating with someone that was in the service and might have gone through some of the same things,” he said.
Reach Robert Tomkavage at 570-704-3941 or on Twitter @rtomkavage.