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Judges spar over veterans’ assistance programming in Jefferson County Court


Jefferson County Judge Kim H. Martusewicz and the Fifth Judicial District’s top judge are at loggerheads over how some military veterans should be treated once they become involved in the criminal justice system.

At issue is federal grant funding Jefferson County was slated to receive through its Drug Court program to allow training for several agencies, such as the district attorney’s office and probation department, in recognizing and responding to unique issues faced by veterans, as well as active-duty personnel. An application filed in 2013 had been denied because of a lack of funds, but was awarded, based on the 2013 application, in January through the National Drug Court Institute.

However, Judge James C. Tormey III, Syracuse, administrative judge for the Fifth Judicial District, informed the state Office of Court Administration that Judge Martusewicz did not have the district’s authorization to seek the grant and declined the offer for Jefferson County to receive the training.

Judge Tormey maintains that the training represents a duplication of a veterans treatment program already being used successfully in Onondaga and Oneida counties, the Veterans Diversion Program. That program provides early intervention, sometimes even before a charge is lodged, to address the emotional, psychological, medical, housing and employment needs of a veteran, incorporating the veteran’s family in treatment. The program operates at all court levels, often dealing with misdemeanors, not just felony charges handled at the county court level.

“The goal for us is to intervene early and often,” said Gerard J. Neri, special counsel to Judge Tormey.

Mr. Neri said the program makes a distinction between active-duty personnel and veterans. While Jefferson County is home to Fort Drum and about 20,000 active-duty soldiers, the district has found that the number of veterans living in the county that become involved in the criminal justice system is not statistically higher than in any of the six counties of the judicial district; thus “the numbers aren’t there to spend money” on a specialized court for veterans.

“Money is tight,” Mr. Neri said. “You’ve only got so much time in the day, so you’ve got to use it in the best interest of the most people.”

In a Jan. 27 letter to the Office of Court Administration, Judge Tormey wrote that most issues involving veterans in Jefferson County involve misdemeanors, “with only a handful of cases annually involving felonies.” He wrote that the district had approached Fort Drum officials about a diversion program for active-duty soldiers, but was told there was no interest because other programs exist on base for active soldiers. He said the county would be better served by participating in the existing Veterans Diversion Program, bringing Watertown City Court and town and village courts into the mix.

Judge Martusewicz counters that Jefferson County is not trying to implement a new program, as it was seeking the training to supplement what it already is doing for veterans through its Drug Court program. Judge Martusewicz said the name Drug Court is something of a misnomer, saying it could be better described as a “problem-solving” court. With Drug Court, a small percentage of nonviolent felony offenders are offered the option of intensive substance abuse treatment, rather than being shuffled off to prison, in recognition that substance abuse issues were the underlying reason the person committed a crime.

Judge Martusewicz said issues with veterans can be similar, with problems caused not necessarily by substance abuse, but by issues directly related to the person’s military service, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury. He said it is “our responsibility as a community and a society to do the right thing” for military personnel, many of whom are trying assimilate themselves back into society after multiple deployments to war zones.

To that end, the county has added a veterans justice outreach coordinator and a representative from the Watertown Veterans Center to the Drug Court team, at no additional cost to the court system, according to Judge Martusewicz. He said Judge Tormey’s approval of the training for the team and other law enforcement officials and service providers within the county would have demonstrated “symbolic and tangible” support for what the county is doing for veterans.

In a letter to Judge Tormey on Monday, Judge Martusewicz said the decision to deny the training “appears to be arbitrary and punitive.” He claimed that information contained in Judge Tormey’s Jan. 27 letter contained “some serious misrepresentations and false statements that must be answered.” Judge Martusewicz said that he never sought to create a new “Veterans Court” in the county, as Judge Tormey had claimed. He also said that the district was aware of and approved the grant application that was denied last year, but that the new grant was awarded in early January without the filing of any new application forms.

Judge Martusewicz also takes exception to Judge Tormey’s determination that County Court disposed of far fewer cases in 2013 than Judge Martusewicz claims, figures which were based on reports generated by the state Unified Court System. Judge Martusewicz maintains that the court disposed of 608 cases, with him handling 532 cases and state Supreme Court Justice James P. McClusky handling 76. Judge Tormey wrote that many of the cases ultimately ended in misdemeanor convictions and should have been returned to a lower city, town or village court for disposition.

Judge Tormey had written that Judge Martusewicz presided over just three jury trials and one nonjury trial in 2013, but Judge Martusewicz pointed out that he “screens” felony cases in an attempt to obtain preindictment resolutions, which he contends saves time, energy and money by reducing the number of cases presented to grand juries and ensuing indictments, as well as the number of trials.

“Your comments, on this subject, belittle and trivialize the positive and good work performed by not just me but all of us here in Jefferson County Court (and by all the other agencies interacting with it),” Judge Martusewicz wrote.

The judge also wrote that he would be willing to assist in providing information about services to veterans to the lower courts and other involved parties.

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