The criminal justice system is expanding efforts to help military veterans arrested in Miami-Dade County.
Authorities on Friday announced a new effort to identify veterans, from the moment they are arrested, and help them get benefits and government services as they work their way through the court system.
Many, particularly those accused of low-level, non-violent crimes, will be put on a separate court calendars in the county’s mental health and drug court programs that allow for charges to be dropped if defendants successfully complete rehabilitation.
“The veterans in our criminal justice system need our help,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said in a press conference on Friday.
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“What our veterans need is not a handout, but a hand up,” said Ret. U.S. Marine Lt. Col Tony Colmenares, who worked for Miami-Dade College and has been helping implement the program.
The announcement was attended by Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Nushin Sayfie, the head administrative judge for the criminal division, Miami-Dade Public Defender Carlos Martinez, Miami-Dade Regional Counsel Eugene Zenobi and County Commissioner Jose “Pepe“ Diaz.
The key development: Police officers filing arrest reports will now be required to ask defendants if they are military veterans. That will allow court officials to identify defendants who may need help from the Veterans Administration, which can provide substance abuse treatment, vocational training and housing.
Defendants may also be paired with mentors who are also veterans successful in the programs.
The effort is part of a growing nationwide movement of courts designated specifically for veterans, allowing them to avoid jail or prison by entering intense court-monitored drug rehabilitation. The concept is an extension of drug court, which first started in Miami more than two decades ago.
The program is a reboot of a similar small-scale program that started in 2011 in Miami-Dade.