Veterans who have had contact with the criminal justice system in the borough have another option to help turn their lives around.
Bronx Veterans Treatment Court offers to help wayward vets who are criminal justice system-involved and charged with felonies, as well as some misdemeanors.
The goal is for the ex-GIs to avoid prison and a high-level conviction, while turning their lives around through mentoring by fellow veterans, as well as mental health and substance abuse treatment.
The court, established in May 2013, seeks to address the needs of former soldiers who may be suffering from from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury, as well as drug addition that often accompanies extreme stress, said program mentoring coordinator Dwayne Gathers, a resident of Soundview.
“What makes Bronx Veterans Court different from any other court is the mentoring component,” said Gathers, adding “It is a diversionary program that gives back to the veterans.”
In the program, after the veteran pleads guilty to a charge, the sentence is held in abeyance while he or she completes the 12 to 24 month program, he explained.
Ultimately, if successful, the veteran can plead to a lesser charge, and have the benefit of treatment to get their lives in order.
The program, through partnerships, provides hands-on service and fellow veteran mentors who are in touch with their mentees at least twice a week, and often go with them to medical appointments and court appearances.
“It is just like in the military,” said Gathers. “We are in the foxhole together and we are going to get you through this program.”
According to Gathers, the Bronx Veterans Court includes three entities working together: the Veterans Hospital Administration, the courts and the district attorney’s office, and the mentors.
Gathers has also started a 501(c)3 non-profit to help sustain the all-volunteer mentoring effort called Bronx Veterans Court Mentors, to promote sobriety and stability among our service-performing men and women.
According to the non-profit, so far 35 participants have graduated from the program, with an additional 25 or so currently enrolled.
The veteran’s court is currently presided over by acting Bronx Supreme Court Justice John Moore.
Pat Devine, a longtime advocate for former men and women in uniform, serves as a mentor and BVCM vice-president. He is from Throggs Neck.
The program also seeks to help some of the people in the program get jobs or pursue educational opportunities, said Devine.
“It is such a great program supporting the veteran, with the mentors keeping in contact during the week,” said Devine. “We keep them motivated and let them know that they are…not walking alone.”
Devine said that the key of the program’s success is that the veterans who are seeking to turn their lives around are talking to other veterans who have been where they are now, or where they were in the service.
Gathers added that the diversion program saves taxpayers money, because rather than incarcerate these men and women, which costs thousands of dollars per year, they are getting the help they need and can hopefully be reformed.