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Mixed reviews for veterans court

CARSON CITY — A legislative panel heard mixed testimony today on a plan to set up a specialized court for military veterans struggling to readjust to civilian life.

AB187, proposed by Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, would authorize a specialty court that would handle cases of veterans charged with nonviolent crimes and who suffer from mental or substance abuse problems stemming from their military service.

Under the plan, reviewed by the Assembly Judiciary Committee, such veterans could go through a treatment program and, if they complete the program, have their criminal file sealed.

“It believe it’s the right step for Nevada and the right thing to do by our veterans,” said Buckley, who was backed by several veterans and representatives of organizations that help vets.

Also endorsing the plan was Hank Pirowski, project director for a veterans’ court in Buffalo, N.Y., that served as a model for Buckley’s proposal. Pirowski, a Vietnam veteran, spoke by telephone, describing how his court, the first of its sort in the nation, has helped veterans to work their way through problems with the law.

While most of the testimony on AB187 was in support of Buckley’s plan, Lee Rowland of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada said she opposes the bill because it creates a separate class of people charged with crimes based on their status as veterans.

Rowland said she supports specialty courts that help people with mental or substance abuse problems, and agreed it’s a “travesty” that veterans don’t always get services they deserve, but found herself in the “extremely awkward position” of questioning AB187.

Her concern, Rowland said, was “an automatic free pass based on military status to certain criminal defense rights that others don’t have. We do think that presents a problem.”

Nancy Hart of the Nevada Network Against Domestic Violence also said she had concerns about the measure, and suggested a revision to ensure that anyone charged with domestic violence couldn’t be diverted to the veterans court.

Following the lead of the veterans court in Buffalo, officials have set up similar courts in cities in Alaska, California, Oklahoma and elsewhere, and more than 20 other courts across the country are considering the plan.

Buckley noted that Congress is considering proposals to help fund such courts.

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