LEWISTON — Local courts have yet to host a veterans court, but local veterans hope to find their way into a specially created court anyway.
Two local veterans have asked to be taken to a segregated area of the Kennebec County Jail in Augusta and appear before the state’s only veterans court judge, Justice Nancy Mills.
Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty has hosted people from York, Somerset and Waldo counties in his “vet block.” And he’s ready to accept people from Androscoggin County into his program at the Augusta jail, if they qualify.
It would be the first such move for local veterans since the Maine Legislature approved the vet court plan in March 2012.
Begun in Buffalo, N.Y., veterans courts offer inmates a chance to undergo counseling and work on healing service-related problems while in jail or even at home, much as drug courts in Maine offer alternative sentencing programs for some people with substance addiction.
In Buffalo, not one veteran who completed the program has returned to court.
In Lewiston-Auburn, creating such a court is waiting for a judge.
“I can’t find a judge who wants to bite at the apple,” said Jerry DeWitt, a veterans advocate who works with Tri-County Mental Health Services.
However, he has been working with the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Office and the VA to offer as much as possible to local inmates who happen to be veterans.
In May 2012, the Androscoggin County Jail began questioning all new inmates to see if they were veterans. Incoming veterans were given information about resources such as Tri-County, the VA medical system and the Lewiston Vet Center.
About 20 people have already been helped, said Lt. Jeffery Chute, the jail’s assistant administrator.
“Our big goal is to capture who they are and get them the help they need,” said Chute, who is a veteran.
Until the local effort gets a judge, Liberty said he’s willing to help people as much as he can.
Maine’s network of county jails needs to offer as many kinds of treatment as it can; the alternative is warehousing people and a higher rate of repeat offenses.
“We rock it up here,” said Liberty, a veteran who served in Iraq.
He also insisted that threatened state budget cuts will not take away either veterans court or his vet block.
“We’ve got to find a way to make it,” he said.