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Veterans treatment courts soldier on through the pandemic

Senior Editor News in Photos
VTC Judge Michael Scionti

Judge Michael Scionti hugs a graduate of the 13th Circuit’s Veterans Treatment Court before COVID-19 forced changes to the program. The 150 participants in Judge Scionti’s VTC can no longer undergo random drug testing, attend group therapy, or perform community service — key components for healing warriors whose involvement with the courts often stems from PTSD, TBI, and substance use disorders. Judge Scionti said he is now conducting a “deep dive” into individual VTC cases via videoconferencing.

Thirteenth Judicial Circuit Judge Michael Scionti, an Army Reserve commander, was on maneuvers in Ft. Riley, Kansas on March 13 when President Trump declared COVID-19 a national emergency.

Two days before, the Iraqi combat veteran was hiking with his unit when he spotted a marker for the World War I camp where Spanish flu ignited in 1918, eventually killing 50 million worldwide.

“Before we deployed, we had heard through military channels that COVID-19 was coming,” Scionti said. “When we saw the marker, I said, ‘ladies and gentlemen, here is where it all started, and hopefully, this time around, it won’t be quite so bad.’”

COVID-19 hasn’t taken as many lives as the Spanish flu, but it’s raised significant hurdles for Judge Scionti’s Veterans Treatment Court and 30 similar programs throughout Florida. His annual maneuvers cancelled, Judge Scionti headed back to Tampa to do some triage.

The 150 participants in Judge Scionti’s VTC can no longer undergo random drug testing, attend group therapy, or perform community service — key components for healing warriors whose involvement with the courts often stems from PTSD, TBI, and substance use disorders.

“One of our driving messages was pro-social activity, get them out of their own little bubble of helplessness and self-pity,” Scionti said. “Community service isn’t a punishment.”

Judge AikensLeon County Judge Augustus Aikens, Jr., a retired Army colonel who presides over Veterans Treatment Court in the Second Circuit, agrees that social distancing’s biggest challenge for VTC participants is isolation.

“When they meet together in groups, they evaluate one another, and they learn from each other and they grow from that,” Judge Aikens said. “And they’re not able to do that at this point.”

Another key component, regular appearances in a courtroom to report their progress, is another big loss, Judge Aikens said.

“Many of them actually enjoy that, they look forward to telling the court how well they’re doing,” Judge Aikens said.

VTCs, like other problem-solving courts, are non-adversarial.

Facing charges that range from misdemeanor DUI and drug possession to felony assault, veteran participants agree to undergo mental-health and substance-abuse treatment with the promise that charges will be reduced or set aside when they successfully complete the program.

Participants work with program volunteers, usually fellow veterans, who help with scheduling, transportation, housing, and employment.

Christopher Deutsch, communications director for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, estimates that there are about 4,000 programs nationwide.

The programs —including adult, juvenile, and family drug courts, DUI courts, veteran treatment courts, and tribal courts — have 150,000 participants nationwide at any given time, Deutsch said.

When the COVID-19 crisis struck, NADCP recommended that all programs follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to protect the health and safety of all participants, Deutsch said.

“First and foremost, we’ve advised courts that they need to follow the CDC recommendations and their state and local recommendations, in terms of social distancing and closures,” he said. “Some areas of the country have closed down court, some are still able to convene, a lot of the treatment courts we’re talking to have adapted really quickly to maintain that support, just in a different way.”

Treatment courts across the country are using telephone conferencing and Zoom video conferencing to substitute for live hearings, Deutsch said.

VTCs in Florida are no different.

Judge SciontiBeginning May 4, Judge Scionti said he will conduct a “deep dive” into individual VTC cases via videoconferencing. The same day, Judge Aikens will be holding check-ins with his participants via telephone conference calls.

Judge Aikens said he has found a private contractor willing to conduct drug testing for his participants, a program requirement he is not willing to forego during the COVID-19 crisis.

“We understand that some are anxious to move forward, but we have to be confident that they have met the standards that I have set for them,” Judge Aikens said.

VTCs boast low recidivism rates because of close monitoring, and Judge Aikens said he plans to use every tool available to help participants feel confident in their recovery. Early program participants are prone to relapse, he said.

“We’re not going to forgive them because it doesn’t help them to get out of the program and then come back and commit new offenses just because they didn’t receive the necessary treatment,” he said.

With no drug testing currently available in Southwest Florida, Judge Scionti said participants may take longer to graduate, but they won’t be penalized, he said.

“All of the veterans are in a holding pattern, because the efficacy of the program is not where it needs to be,” he said. “They know I’m tracking it all, and that it’s never been my style to punish.”

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