February 4

OUR OPINION: Maine should support the Veterans Treatment Court

More research is needed, however, before expanding to new sites.

If it were not for the brain and back injuries he suffered in Iraq, Travis Bentley would have never become addicted to pain medication. If it were not for that addiction, he would have never found himself facing significant prison time for robbing pharmacies.

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Press Herald photo by Gabe Souza LEARNING A TRADE: Travis Bentley works during a building construction class at Central Maine Community College in Auburn on Friday. Bentley is a graduate of Veterans Treatment Court.

And if it weren’t for the Veterans Treatment Court, the decorated former Marine sergeant may have been lost forever to the cycle of abuse and incarceration. Instead, Bentley is two-and-a-half-years clean and on the verge of earning a college degree.

It is stories like Bentley’s that demonstrate the worth of Maine’s Veterans Treatment Court, now run out of the Kennebec County Superior Court in Augusta. It helps veterans who never would have been in trouble had they not served their country get the help they need.

But officials should move carefully when expanding the still-new program. It’s not clear how many people in Maine’s criminal justice system could take advantage of an expanded veterans court, or if such a court would flourish elsewhere as it has in Augusta.

The veterans court, launched in 2012, allows participants without a prior criminal history to avoid lengthy prison terms if they adhere to the strict treatment, counseling and reporting requirements.

But it is not an easy way out. The program is rigorous, and it doesn’t completely absolve the participants. Bentley, for instance, was sentenced to four years in jail, with all but 85 days suspended, and three years’ probation, after he graduated.

Last September, Bentley and Dan Andrews, another Iraq veteran, became the first two graduates of the court. So far, 20 veterans have been accepted into the program. In addition to the two graduates, two participants have died and one was expelled. The remaining 15 candidates are active, and there 10 open spots.

Those openings may suggest that some candidates for the program are being missed.

That is the reasoning behind L.D. 1697, from Rep. Lori Fowle, D-Vassalboro. The bill, the subject of a hearing at 1 p.m. today at the State House in Augusta, would expand the veterans program to all 16 Superior Courts in the state, at a cost of $1.16 million.

As Fowle has said, however, that such a comprehensive approach is not necessary, nor is it financially feasible. Instead, she wants lawmakers to determine how many new sites the state needs, and where to put them, so that distance doesn’t keep anyone from taking part.

That discussion also should include whether any more sites are needed at all. It may be that there are simply not enough veterans committing crimes to warrant the expansion of the program to other sites.

In that case, the state would do better to direct its resources to supporting the program in Augusta, near the federal services provided through Togus.

In either case, Maine has to make sure that the veterans who can benefit find their way to the special court, and that the court offers all the support it can.

It is the right thing to do financially, considering the state pays more than $50,000 a year to house an inmate, as opposed to $10,000 or so a year for a person in the veterans court.

It is also the right thing to do morally, for the veterans struggling with substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder. Too often, they go untreated, and sometimes an otherwise worthy person does something far out of character.

It would be preferable to reach these veterans before they commit a crime, with improved mental health screening and counseling services.

But the cracks in the system are wide, and the veterans court is an acknowledgement that the system has failed veterans once, but will not again.

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