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Court program aims to keep troubled veterans out of jail

Army veteran Robert Janis, right, is congratulated after

Army veteran Robert Janis, right, is congratulated after his graduation July 22, 2014 from Suffolk's Veteran's Court. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

The men who appeared in Judge John Toomey's courtroom Tuesday took various pathways to reach his Suffolk County Veterans Court. Toomey praised them for having exited via the high road.

One had spiraled into alcoholism after a combat tour in Vietnam, and had been caught driving drunk. Another, who had joined the Army right out of high school, struggled with his return to civilian life and eventually stole a laptop to support a heroin addiction. A third struggled with anxiety after a rape he witnessed while serving in Korea triggered childhood demons he attempted to escape by smoking crack.

But they were among about a dozen veterans who Tuesday completed Veterans Court programs that allow veterans who plead guilty to certain nonviolent crimes to avoid jail time. Instead of going to prison, participants agree to court-monitored programs that include psychotherapy, anger management, drug and alcohol rehab, or other interventions designed to help them change destructive behaviors and return to civilian life.

"Today feels like a new chapter in my life, a new doorway opening," said Robert Janis, 51, of Riverhead, who was the first enrolled when the program was inaugurated in 2011. "I can see sunlight."

Brian Green, 46, of Central Islip, said the program allowed him to get off a path he believes would have led to longer prison terms or an early grave.

"It was a long, hard road, but it boiled down to do I want to live or do I want to die," Green said.

He said he struggled with heroin addiction, and was arrested in late 2011 after being spotted on a security camera stealing a laptop he intended to sell for drug money.

Working in conjunction with the court, counselors at the federal Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center arranged for Green to participate in a host of programs there, including three months of inpatient therapy at the medical center in Northport. Volunteer members of the Vietnam Veterans of America serve as mentors to program enrollees, offering encouragement or drill-sergeant tough love where appropriate.

Janis, who hugged several of his mentors in the courtroom Tuesday, said although he has completed the court program, he will continue to see a counselor at Northport twice a week to help him remain drug-free.

"Northport is stability for me," Janis said.

Social workers, police and court officials say veterans who are arrested often have psychological problems related to their military service that are better treated with therapy than jail.

"I don't think it is an overstatement to say this court saves lives," said John Sperandeo, the VA's director of social work at Northport.

Islip Town Councilman Anthony Senft, Jr., a former Army captain who was in the courtroom Tuesday, said the intensity of military training sometimes makes it hard for veterans to adjust to civilian lives that lack the military's structure, discipline and explicit code of conduct.

"As a former enlistee and officer, I know all too well," said Senft, who served as a special operations officer with the 82nd Airborne Division, at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

Under the program, defendants who plead guilty must agree to participate in court supervised programs that run a minimum of 12 months for misdemeanors and 18 months for felonies.

The court monitors their progress at regular hearings, and can impose new conditions or even jail time if a participant fails to live up to his therapy.

Green said Toomey ordered him to spend two weeks in jail last year after Green suffered a mid-program relapse, but allowed him to resume his recovery.

"Part of recovery is relapse," said Toomey, himself a former Vietnam infantry soldier. "But instead of punishing them, we get them back before the court."

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