Veterans Get Clean-Slate Opportunities in ‘Forgiveness Court’

Former military who have fallen on hard times in civilian life are getting a second shot at life — and happiness

It is no secret our military veterans population is often hard-pressed by life circumstances gone awry, resulting in almost two dozen former-soldier suicides per day. The grind of re-acclimating to civilian life after serving our nation in the military has challenges. Organically, PTSD and depression are often deeply entrenched roots that transcend external strife such as unemployment and homelessness — which sometimes engenders legal issues such as fines, encumbrances and warrants.

In one Tampa Bay-area courtroom, dubbed the Veterans Forgiveness Court, the wheels of justice are not zooming right on by this demographic, which could use some assistance, but, instead, are slowing down to lend an ear and some helpful judgments — resulting in clean-slate opportunities.

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Hillsborough County, Florida, has a Veterans Outreach Court designed to adjudicate former military warriors whose post-service life may have garnered some legal tabs. The county judge overseeing this unique court is also a military veteran.

On the Hillsborough County Clerk of the Court website, Judge Daryl Manning said, “As a veteran of the U.S. Army, I know and appreciate the sacrifice and service our veterans have offered our country. [The] Veterans Outreach Court is a way we can help these men and women veterans quickly resolve some of their legal issues and help them get back on their feet.”

Discharged soldiers returning home sometimes wind up without a home. Having depleted their resources, some culminate in a poverty-level statistic. The Veterans Outreach Court is specifically designed for this particular demographic: poverty-stricken military vets who have fallen upon hard times in civilian capacity.

Albeit having a central focus of absolving legal dilemmas, the Veterans Outreach Court does not generally include certain legal matters such as domestic violence cases, child support orders, felony warrants, and other cases ordinarily relegated for adjudication in/by a military tribunal. However, a retired Special Forces buddy of mine volunteers in the Veterans Outreach Court process and attests that “exceptions to the rule are sometimes made, wiping out a felony warrant and any related fines.”

That can’t happen until they stand before a judge.

Veterans Outreach Court judge. Appointed to the judicial bench by Florida Gov. Rick Scott in September 2015, County Judge Manning served in the United States Army as a judge advocate general (JAG), retiring with the rank of lieutenant colonel. Post-military career, Judge Manning served in the Tampa Attorney General’s Office as an assistant attorney before being picked by Gov. Scott to serve on the bench in the 13th Judicial Circuit.

Related: New Hope for the Prevention of Veteran and Military Suicides

With his appointment of Judge Manning, Gov. Scott said, “Throughout his career, Daryl has honorably served Florida as a member of the U.S. military and as an assistant attorney general. I am confident he will do a great job on the Hillsborough County Court.” Judge Manning served as an assistant attorney general for 16 years before he donned the black judicial robe.

During his many years in the military, Judge Manning “served several tours in support of the global war on terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait before retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 2015,” according to A Kid’s Place of Tampa Bay Inc., where Judge Manning serves as a board member. Another testament to service is filling the role as a guardian ad litem, another forward-paying gesture, which Judge Manning has on the selfless-belt under his robe.

With inherent value to our military warriors, who are trying to rebuild their lives while liberating from bondages, spearheading the Veterans Outreach Court certainly attests to what Gov. Scott publicized. In terms of confidence in Judge Manning’s competency, I do not hesitate to add his compassion and measured use with regard to delegated judicial authority.

Federal, state, county and local governments collaborate with community homeless service providers to roll out a bevy of veterans assistance items.

Court conglomerate. Resembling the traditional judicial process in America, various criminal justice entities are part and parcel components in the Veterans Outreach Court model … supplemented by military stewards: the 13th Judicial Circuit Court, Hillsborough County Veterans Services, the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office, the Hillsborough County Public Defender’s Office, Tampa Homeless Outreach, the Hillsborough County Clerk of Court & Comptroller, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Local nonprofit veterans’ organizations also help facilitate the official proceedings by providing requisite registration, transportation, and any manner of logistics to ensure criteria are met by veterans. Under the tutelage of Judge Manning, a team of judges holds court and fulfills the mission.

Operation Reveille. The Veterans Outreach Court is but one element in retooling military veterans, similar to those offered by the VA posts around the nation.

Related to the Veterans Outreach Court is the U.S. Veterans Administration’s Operation Reveille program, which seeks to “provide veterans with housing and wraparound services they need to successfully exit homelessness — in just one day.” I’m sure they mean the services are applied in “just one day” to equip homeless veterans with the necessary resources to acquire sustainable housing and a future.

Related: PTSD: ‘It’s Not a Sign of Weakness, Can Happen to Anyone’

According to the Veterans Administration, “Operation Reveille events bring together government agencies, faith-based organizations, housing providers, nonprofit agencies, and local businesses to connect homeless veterans with permanent supportive housing; intensive case management; benefits eligibility screening; and employment, legal assistance, and mental health services. Since 2014, annual Operation Reveille events held in Tampa, Florida, have placed more than 100 veterans in permanent supportive housing over the initiative’s three years.”

Stand Downs. Scheduled and operated by VAs around the country, Stand Downs are “events providing supplies and services to homeless veterans, such as food, shelter, clothing, health screenings and VA Social Security benefits counseling,” according to the Veterans Administration site. Also offered at Stand Downs are solutions for housing, treatments for mental health and substance abuse, and employment attainment. Federal, state, county and local governments collaborate with respective community homeless service providers to roll out a bevy of veterans assistance items.

At a recent Four County Stand Down, “over $67,000 in fines and payments were absolved [on behalf of] veterans,” mentioned Randall McNabb in discussing the program’s values via the Tampa Homeless Outreach Facebook page.

Lifelong roles. It is often said, “Once a cop, always a cop.” Having lived a law enforcement life, I can attest to that credo.

As a street cop whose career was mostly spent on the midnight shift, I gravitated to individuals walking streets or huddled in doorways or bunked on park benches. Between sniffing out burglars and sleuthing contraband from automobiles, I formed some fantastic bonds with folks who somehow lost their compass.

Related: Why Police Wonder: ‘Will I Make It Through This Shift?’

The how-I-became-homeless stories I was exposed to tore at the Kevlar, minus the malice. Somber eyes perched in battle-hardened bodies unyieldingly telegraphed “Help!” without ever uttering the word. Like cops, soldiers maintain a constant battle between good and evil. Often, the war is within … pushing to get out of tight, angst-ridden space.

Although my duty called for it, trespass warnings accomplished nothing but transplanting the dilemma. Frankly, despite fulfilling my duty, I felt failed as a human at times. Displacing anyone while harboring the confirmation that they have nowhere to go … multiplies one stark soul into two, then three, and so on. It weighs heavy.

The resolve for living with such nuances comes with programs like Veterans Outreach Court and Operation Reveille and any Stand Downs across the nation.

The universal links are always on duty: Tampa Homeless Outreach, which helps hard-hit veterans clear away legal burdens, is operated by military veterans, some of whom happen to be current law enforcement officers … all encamped to do the right thing for those who unquestionably enabled those freedoms.

Stephen Owsinski is a retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and Field Training Officer (FTO) unit. He is currently a senior OpsLens contributor, a researcher and a writer. This article is from OpsLens and is used with permission.

Read more at OpsLens:
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