AUGUSTA — In response to Justin Crowley-Smilek's death and at the prompting of U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, state Rep. Maeghan Maloney, D-Augusta, is proposing legislation aimed at helping veterans.
Maloney's bill would set up a new layer in Maine's court system aimed at veterans with mental health and/or substance-abuse issues. The court would be for vets facing criminal charges and would allow a judge via a social worker to have access to a veteran's health and military records. It would also provide the veteran facing charges with a volunteer advocate in another veteran who has similar life experiences and who may be maintaining a treatment regiment.
Maloney, a lawyer and former prosecutor for the state, said the court is meant to recognize veterans as uniquely different citizens, but it isn't intended to provide them with any special privilege under the law.
A docket for the day would be set up to hear all veteran cases, she said.
"You would also have people in the courtroom that can help the veterans with the issues they have but also make sure they are connected to the resources that are available to them," Maloney said.
Modeled after a law created in New York in 1981, Maloney believes it would have helped Crowley-Smilek by ensuring early and intensive intervention and treatment.
"What has blown me away," Maloney said, "is I have heard from so many veterans who want to volunteer to help other veterans. It actually looks like you are going to have trouble because you are going to have too many, because so many of them understand what it is like to come back from war and be suicidal and they want to be there. They want to be able to help."
The version of the court in New York has been remarkably successful and has a "zero percent" recidivism rate, Maloney said. In other words, veterans who have been processed through the court have never been convicted of another crime.
"And for the veterans who have been through this program, the ability to have those veteran mentors in their lives, it changes everything," she said.
She said it could also result in saving the state money in the long run because it would keep more veterans out of the criminal justice system and get them back on track more quickly.
"They've given everything for their country, and I think we can give them some extra help," she said.
She said if such a court were in place the first time Crowley-Smilek — who had numerous run-ins with the law after his return from war — appeared in court, it may have saved his life.
The day before he was shot, a judge ordered Crowley-Smilek to undergo a state mental health examination to determine whether he was competent to stand trial on an aggravated assault charge. Between August of 2007 and January of 2011 Crowley-Smilek had been charged with crimes seven different times including charges of carrying concealed weapons, trafficking in dangerous knives and aggravated assault.
"I do think it is significant that he died on Saturday and he was in court on Friday," Maloney said. "There was an opportunity there that we missed, not that it would have necessarily been different, but had he walked into court and been saluted and talked to his mentor, there's a possibility, particularly having the mentor there telling him, 'Hey, you are important and you matter.'"
Maloney, a freshman lawmaker, said she's had a positive response from her State House colleagues. Both Democrats and Republicans want to sign on as co-sponsors of the bill, she said.
'Still human beings'
Bruce Morris, the Iraq War veteran who was a friend of Crowley-Smilek, said he thinks the measure would go a long way toward helping veterans who get in trouble with the law get the help they deserve more quickly.
He said most veterans aren't looking for special treatment; they just want what they feel they've earned. They want society and the government to live up to their sides of the agreement, Morris said.
He said they aren't looking for well-meaning people to thank them for their service.
"I don't know any enlisted guy who wants anything to do with being saluted," he said. "But it is past time for the VA, the (Department of Defense) and these politicians to step up to the plate."
Veterans who serve their country honorably and leave a war zone damaged only want to be seen as people, he said.
"When you come home from a war, you are different than you were when you left," he said. "There's no avoiding that, whether you see combat or not, and most people who are not vets can never fully understand that. Everyday life is not life in a war zone, but we are still human beings.
"That's all I really want, to help make people aware of that."