Glouco launches program for troubled veterans

Posted: May 22, 2014

Recognizing their sacrifices while serving and the hardships they may face when returning home, Gloucester County unveiled a new effort Tuesday to assist veterans navigating the criminal justice system.

The program - a partnership among six law enforcement, social services, and nonprofit agencies - aims to connect veterans charged with nonviolent offenses with services they need to avoid repeat situations and incarceration.

The effort, which begins this month, will serve as a pilot before being applied statewide, where there are an estimated 15,000 veterans in the justice system, officials said.

The Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office announced the program, called the Gloucester County Veterans Initiative, as partner representatives signed a memorandum establishing a two-year agreement.

The initiative calls for training police officers to integrate questions regarding military service when detaining a suspect or interacting with a homeless individual, and to learn to work with those who may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or other illnesses.

In-need veterans are to be referred to specific programs such as shelters, housing, medical treatment, and career counseling.

"They need our help and support," said county Prosecutor Sean F. Dalton.

The county is identifying volunteer veterans to serve as mentors for fellow veterans in the system.

Duane Sarmiento, director of the county's Office of Veterans Affairs, said the effort "is the next progressive step" in reaching out to some of the county's 20,000 veterans who have not proactively asked for help.

"Maybe they're not seeking treatment," he said.

Partners include his office; the county Department of Corrections; county Police Chiefs Association; the state Parole Board; and Catholic Charities of the Camden Diocese.

With troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of incarcerated veterans in the country could double in coming years, said James T. Plousis, chairman of the parole board.

Organizers say the cooperative program will come at no extra cost to taxpayers. Citing efforts such as veterans courts in Pennsylvania, Plousis said the state "thought this would be a better fit to address the needs of the vets."

"We're confident it will be emulated in other counties," he added. "This is really the future."

The Gloucester County effort for veterans is one of many launching around the Memorial Day holiday.

At the municipal level, East Greenwich plans to begin job preference for veterans in the township. Mayor Dale Archer, a Marine, said he worked with Sarmiento, the county veterans affairs director, in drafting the resolution. Archer hopes the measure, to be signed next week, will be picked up by the county and other municipalities.

In neighboring Camden County, officials this week opened three new one-bedroom cottages in Gloucester Township designated as temporary housing for veterans.


afichera@philly.com

856-779-3917

@AJFichera

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