Lancaster County Veterans Court had its largest-ever graduating class at a recent ceremony where eight men officially completed the program.
County Judge Jeffery Wright presides over Veterans Court, a specialty court which allows offenders with a service history a chance to have their sentences tailored to their needs and/or lower-level offenses reduced or expunged from their record.
The program involves close supervision by court “mentors” and participants with substance-abuse issues to undergo regular screenings, among other requirements.
In addition to providing defendants an alternate disposition path, the court has saved taxpayers hundreds of thousands, Judge Wright said at the Oct. 20 ceremony in Courtroom A of the Lancaster County Courthouse.
A large group of spectators watched eight graduates – 6 Army veterans and 2 Marines - receive diplomas and reflect on their transformation in the program.
Judge Wright, who shakes hands of the graduates while presenting their diplomas, opened the ceremony with a special message to Vietnam veterans who “were at best neglected, and at worst, and far too often, abused” upon return home years ago.
Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman, whose office approves or rejects the acceptance of applicants into the program, was keynote speaker. DA Stedman, who served as a military intelligence officer in the US Army, lauded the graduates for defending their country and their “fighting spirit” in combatting issues unique to veterans.
The court mentors are veterans themselves who serve not only as reporters of progress to Judge Wright, but as companions at all hours when the participants struggle to meet the program’s requirements.
Stedman called the mentors the “backbone” of the program, similar to the non-commissioned officers who have kept things running in every army throughout history, and thanked them for “serving fellow soldiers who strayed from the path.”
“You served our nation with honor,” Stedman said to the mentors, “but your duty was not done, and you continue to serve long after your tours ended.”
Stedman also read from the diary of his grandfather, Sgt. Raymond H. Stedman, which chronicled days of his combat service in France during World War I. The diary passages included sentiments of commitment to fellow soldiers, and the clear sense that American military service has always been about the man next to you and a willingness to sacrifice yourself.
DA Stedman concluded by noting that the bonds forged from service are strong and Veterans Court allows all who served to honor the core military code to never leave a man behind.
Judge Wright told the audience the specialty court has saved over $274,000 in jail costs alone since its launch in 2012.
Additionally, Judge Wright said, participants in the program have paid $103,000 in fines, costs and restitution.
In commemorating Vietnam veterans, Judge Wright asked that those vets in attendance stand up and be recognized.
“Veterans Court exists today in great part because these warriors refuse to allow another generation of veterans suffer through the same ill treatment, neglect and disrespect,” the judge said. “Although what America has to offer now is far too little and far too late, it only seems appropriate that on this the 50th anniversary of the commencement of the Vietnam War, we recognize their sacrifice and service to our country.”
(Photo is from a prior graduation. The flag ceremony is part of all graduation programs.)
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