NASHUA, N.H. — Gov. Maggie Hassan and top judicial and military officials gathered Thursday to dedicate the state's first court designed to handle the criminal cases of military veterans whose crimes were driven by substance abuse, trauma and anger management issues that stem from their service.
"This collaborative effort exemplifies the all-hands-on-deck spirit of our people," Hassan said.
The court will focus on intensive treatment to help stem the tide of recidivism and get veterans back on track.
Chief Justice Linda Dalianis said the court is a tribute to the valor and sacrifice of New Hampshire's veterans.
"Let it be a means for troubles to turn into triumphs," she told a packed courtroom.
Major General William Reddel, adjutant general of the New Hampshire National Guard, said the court is not about providing a get-out-of-jail-free card. He said it's about fixing the problems behind the crimes.
"From a vision 18 months ago to now, I can't thank you enough, because this is huge," Reddel said. He credited Jo Moncher, bureau chief of the state health department's community-based military programs, for making the court a reality.
Judge James Leary, who will preside over the court, said it will also reach out to the families of veterans "who are also seriously and significantly affected."
Diane Levesque, who runs the Veterans Justice Outreach program at the VA Medical Center in Manchester, said veterans involved in the criminal court system deserve the services of a docket dedicated to their needs. She will be the liaison between the court and service providers.
"We have veterans returning from deployments where they have suffered not only physical injury, but psychological and moral injury," Levesque said. "They get into a crisis due to having so much trouble readjusting upon their return."
Levesque said she has an active caseload of more than 100 veterans with pending criminal charges. She said she has handled upward of 500 cases since she took over the program in January 2012.
She said about 260 convicted veterans are behind bars in the state's prisons — many of them honorably discharged Vietnam vets.
"We're talking about a time when veterans were not given special consideration," Levesque said. "Who even thought they had a problem that needed treatment."
There are about 160 veterans' courts nationwide. The first was founded in Buffalo, New York, by Judge Robert Russell in January 2008, after he noticed increasing numbers of veterans on the docket of his drug and mental health courts.
The Veterans Behavioral Health Track court in Nashua begins hearing cases in August.