Veterans' court suggested

A Nevada Senate panel was urged Tuesday to support an Assembly-approved plan that would set up a specialized court for military veterans charged with nonviolent crimes while struggling to readjust to civilian life.

The Senate Judiciary committee reviewed AB187, which would authorize a specialty court for veterans charged with nonviolent crimes and who suffer from mental or substance abuse problems stemming from their military service.

Under the plan, proposed by Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, such veterans could go through a treatment program and, if they complete the program, have their criminal file sealed.

Responding to critics who questioned why veterans should get special treatment, Buckley said, "I think the answer is pretty obvious. They put their lives on the line for our protection. This is the least we can do for our vets."

Buckley said federal funding for the program may become available through pending legislation in Congress. She also proposed an amendment to allow for sealing of records of veterans who successfully go through the special court.

The bill, supported by organizations that help veterans, was modeled after a veterans' court in Buffalo, N.Y., the first of its sort in the nation. The Nevada plan is optional for any jurisdiction that wants to create such a court.

Hank Pirowski, a Vietnam veteran and project director for the New York court, described how his court has helped veterans to work their way through problems with the law. He said the proposed program would help such veterans in Nevada learn about services available to them.

"We need to find them before they enter deeper into the criminal justice system," Pirowski said.

Pirowski also said veterans have unique needs based on experiences not always understood by the general public, and a specialized court would allow them to share common experiences.

"What matters most is peer support," he added.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Terry Care, D-Las Vegas, asked about ways to ensure that people applying for the proposed program truly qualify for the specialized court; and also asked about the rationale for sealing records.

In supporting the bill, former Washoe District Court Judge Peter Breen told Care that sealed records would account for a large part of veteran participation in the proposed program.

"Sealing of records and avoiding prison are the two of the biggest incentives for coming into these courts," Breen said.

Clark County Family Court Judge Art Ritchie also backed the bill. He said existing county resources would be used to create the program, adding that the county has applied for program funding and "the court is prepared to handle these additional matters."

Lee Rowland of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada opposed the bill, saying she agreed that veterans have special needs but a special court isn't needed because there are "ways to work with veterans in the existing system."

"Our concern is that what we have is the creation of a separate system available only to certain people," Rowland said adding she respects veterans and thinks more can be done to help them in other forums.

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