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Veterans court will address ex-soldiers’ criminal record

Queens sealed some cracks in its judicial system Monday when a court system specifically designed for veterans convened in Kew Gardens for the first time.

The Veterans Court System will work with veterans of America’s wars who have pleaded guilty to non-violent crimes. Instead of facing incarceration, the ex-soldiers will have the opportunity to be rehabilitated and treated for a variety of ailments.

“Everything a vet might need will be available,” said Martina Parauda of the New York Harbor Healthcare System, speaking to a packed courtroom celebrating the inaugural session. “They earned it.”

Around 10 percent of the nation’s jail population were veterans in 2004, said Brian Clubb of Veterans Treatment Court Project, and that number is going up. According to Doug Knight of the Queens district attorney’s office, veterans can fall victim to housing problems, unemployment, substance abuse or mental health problems — or a combination of those.

Queens County is the second in the city to implement a court system particularly for veterans after Brooklyn and the 51st municipality in the country to do so.

Pat Toro Jr., president of Queens Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America, said some veterans need a helping hand when they get back from serving.

“They’ve had a certain amount of their lives taken away,” Toro said. “It’s not easy to come back after seeing some of the things you see and then jump right back.”

Toro added that the court should be something that everybody should support.

“As Americans, we owe it to the serviceman,” he said. “I’m looking to give back to them because a lot of what I got may have come from the serviceman before me.”

To help troubled veterans, the courts have partnered with several state and private organizations like the New York State Veteran’s Association or Holliswood Hospital to provide a year’s worth of assistance, according to Knight.

He expects at least 100 vets to pass through in the first year.

The programs start with Queens County police officers, who will ask the people they are arresting if they have served in the armed forces.

If so, a note will be made and when the veteran shows up for the court date, a staff member from the DA’s office will extend the offer to enter the veteran court system instead of the standard one, Knight said.

But there are conditions.

The veteran must plead guilty to the crime before receiving treatment.

As long as the veteran sticks with the program, which is devised on a case-by-case basis by a court case manager, he or she can avoid jail time.

Knight said the program will not cost the justice system any additional money since it works in conjunction with existing programs and nonprofits. But a $540,000 grant will pay for additional staff whose job will be to seek out veterans who might be eligible for the program.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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