Veterans Court offers chance to avoid jail

Veteran Samuel Atkinson, 50, of Freeport, speaks to

Veteran Samuel Atkinson, 50, of Freeport, speaks to an audience after receiving his completion certificate in the central jury room of the Cohalan Court Complex in Central Islip during a graduation ceremony for veterans in a new rehabilitation program. (Oct. 16, 2012) Photo Credit: Daniel Brennan

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After 15 years in the military, including combat during the 1983 invasion of Grenada, Samuel Atkinson stumbled when he tried adjusting to civilian life.

Arrested in 2010 for driving under the influence, the Army sergeant from Freeport was jailed last year for violating his probation.

But while in a Yaphank lockup, Atkinson learned of a Suffolk District Court program that steers veterans facing jail toward treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and other problems.

Tuesday, Atkinson, 50, joined eight other veterans as the first to complete the terms of the Veterans Court diversion program.

"At first, I was very much against the program. Just wanted to do my time and be done with it," Atkinson said. "But it put me on the right track."

About 50 veterans, charged with crimes ranging from drug possession to weapons offenses, are currently enrolled in the 20-month-old county-funded program.

Nassau launched its Veterans Court last November, joining a national trend that began in 2008, when a court in Buffalo began diverting veterans facing jail into treatment programs.

Veterans groups have supported the efforts, noting that war-related psychological problems often contribute to anti-social behaviors that plunge veterans into the criminal justice system.

The Suffolk program's presiding judge, John J. Toomey, is himself a veteran, having been sent to Vietnam as a 19-year-old rifleman in 1967.

Toomey offers veterans the option of avoiding time behind bars by completing 12 to 18 months of supervised therapy through the federal Northport VA Medical Center.

Supervision is strict. Clients must keep their therapy appointments, undergo drug and alcohol screening and appear in court whenever they're asked. Members of a local chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America serve as court-appointed voluntary mentors.

Toomey said only two or three of the roughly 60 veterans who've enrolled in the program have been jailed for failing to comply with its terms, including one veteran who was arrested on a handgun violation.

Atkinson was required to attend daily alcohol-treatment sessions at the Northport VA center for the first month he was in the program, followed by weekly sessions that recently ended.

The probation violation cost him dearly. He and his wife were offered jobs comanaging a small hotel, but that offer was rescinded after Atkinson's offense showed up on a background check.

Atkinson also lost his driver's license, forcing him to take public transportation to Northport -- a round-trip of several hours a day.

But he appears to be regaining his footing. He's only a few credits shy of earning a bachelor's degree in information technology at Briarcliffe College.

"You do feel you are making a change in their lives," Toomey said of Veterans Court. "We try to get them treatment so they can see the light."

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