AUGUSTA — A bill to create a military service entrance into Maine’s court system — with a special court and alternative sentencing for veterans — drew support Tuesday from veterans, lawmakers, counselors and one grieving stepmother.
A veterans’ court would have saved her stepson’s life, insisted Lorna Smilek of Farmington.
“It is our firm belief that Justin (Crowley-Smilek) would be alive today if Maine had in place the proposed veterans’ treatment court, even as late as a few months ago,” she told members of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.
The bill was dedicated to Justin Crowley-Smilek.
On Nov. 19, the decorated ex-Army Ranger was shot and killed by a Farmington police officer after the veteran threatened the officer with a knife. Crowley-Smilek had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and had been in and out of court for years.
The last time was only one day before he died.
“Justin was is dire need of more help than he got, more peer support, and a legal system that recognizes that combat veterans come home with unique and serious problems,” Smilek said.
Her testimony was joined by a line of veterans who backed the measure.
“If you do this, you’re going to change lives,” said Lewiston lawyer and veteran John Whalen.
The idea came from Buffalo, N.Y., where a first-in-the-nation veterans’ court took off.
In return for a guilty plea, veterans were given the chance to pay their debt to society. They underwent counseling, connected with a volunteer mentor and a VA worker and worked on healing service-related problems. They also faced fines and community service sentences.
In Buffalo, not one veteran who completed the program has returned to court.
“It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card,” said Rep. Maeghan Maloney, D-Augusta, the Maine bill’s sponsor. “But it is a second chance.”
The veterans deserve the consideration, Whalen said.
Too often, problems erupt, from unseen wounds, flashbacks, sudden anxieties and chronic physical problems such as difficulty hearing.
“It’s what you don’t see when you look at me,” Whalen said during sometimes tearful testimony.
Lawmakers listened for more than two hours. Only one person, a veteran who complained that treatments for PTSD did not work, complained about the measure.
Supporters included Mary Ann Lynch, government counsel for Maine’s courts, and Peter Ogden, director of Maine Veterans Services.
The plan will cost the state no money, at first.
If the bill passes, one day per week of Maine’s drug courts would be set aside for veterans. The VA would support the change by sending someone to each court meeting.
It’s already working in Kennebec County, Lynch said.
However, if it goes statewide, more money would be needed to pay for judges’ time.
Smilek said she was hoping for a start.
The Army had made her stepson into “a warrior,” she said.
The smiling kid was gone after his months in Afghanistan. Asking for help meant weakness, she said.
He underwent counseling, but it was “too little, too late,” she said. “He became paranoid and felt medication was a government conspiracy to watch him.”
But maybe his spiralling mental health could have been stopped years earlier, she said. He once spent a night in jail after he backed into a light pole and was arrested.
“He was released on $40 bail because he kept banging his head against the wall and terrified other inmates,” Smilek said. “He needed to be held for examination.”
Had a veterans’ court intervened, maybe he would have found peace, she said.