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Baltimore to launch special docket for veterans accused of crimes

October 13, 2015

Ian Duncan
The Baltimore Sun
http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/crime/blog/bs-md-ci-veterans-court-20151013-story.html

Baltimore is set to launch a special docket Tuesday for veterans charged with crimes, aiming to help them avoid prison and instead get into treatment programs through the Department of Veterans Affairs. The effort is being led by Judge Halee F. Weinstein, who will hear the cases of 16 veterans Tuesday.

“This specialized docket allows us to coordinate resources and draw on the skills of a strong, interdisciplinary team to focus on the unique concerns and needs of the veterans who come to our courts,” Weinstein said in a statement. “I look forward to ensuring that veterans are connected to the benefits and treatment earned through their military service.”

The special court, run out of the District Court on North Avenue, is part of a national trend toward setting up dockets geared to treating offenders rather than simply punishing them and follows the creation of similar initiatives for drug addicts, mentally ill people and sex workers. Advocates say the approach can help stop criminals from cycling through the courts by solving underlying problems that get them into trouble. But the specialized courts have also faced questions about whether they let certain groups get special treatment in the justice system.

Courts elsewhere in the country, including in Fairfax County, Va., have launched similar dockets. But when advocates pressed to change the law in Virginia to underscore that judges elsewhere were allowed to use the system, some state delegates raised questions. Del. Rob Bell, a Republican who represents the area surrounding Charlottesville, said he saw no problem with judges organizing their docket more effectively so that defendants could be called to court when social workers would be available to talk to them. But he said lawmakers had concerns about different kinds of defendants being handled differently.

“I don’t see much controversy over arranging the docket,” he said. “There is concern in Virginia about differential justice for different people.”  Weinstein — herself a veteran — has been working with the head of Maryland VA health system, Adam M. Robinson Jr., to get the new docket started.  The voluntary program will allow veterans charged with misdemeanors or certain felonies to forgo the usual handling of their case and be assigned a specialist for up to a year to help them get services from the VA.

Robinson said his specialists are already working with jailed and imprisoned veterans and called the creation of the new docket is “a logical next step.”

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