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Officials working to create veterans docket in Fairfax

Fairfax County officials and advocates are working to create Northern Virginia’s first criminal court docket for military veterans in an effort to help those who have gotten into trouble as a result of trauma suffered during service to the country.

Veterans courts and court dockets are a growing phenomenon across the country, as courts seek ways to handle the large number of criminal cases involving those who have served in the military. One estimate is that veterans make up 10 percent of prisoners in the United States.

“I’ve seen veterans coming before me with issues of mental illness and substance abuse,” said Fairfax County General District Court Chief Judge Penney Azcarate. “These are really issues that are often best dealt with in treatment.”

Azcarate, who is leading the effort in Fairfax, said 1 in 6 veterans who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is suffering from post -traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or sexual trauma.

Fairfax is home to more than 84,000 veterans — the largest number in the state of Virginia, said Laurie Neff, who directs the Clinic for Legal Assistance to Servicemembers at George Mason University. She said there are 76 veterans currently incarcerated in the county.

Planning for the docket, which is scheduled to launch in January 2015, is in the early stages, but Azcarate said she envisions a system in which veterans will be transferred to the special docket when they enter the criminal justice system.

After their cases are adjudicated, the veterans will be linked with intensive substance abuse counseling, mental health treatment or other services, depending on the problems they are facing. Fellow veterans could also serve as mentors to those charged.

Veterans getting out of jail might also receive help finding supportive housing, job training and coping mechanisms. Azcarate said officials are still trying to determine the scope of the services provided, what veterans will qualify and what types of crimes will be eligible for the docket.

She is leading a working group that is planning the docket.

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