Escambia Veterans' Court Now In Session
Veterans and active military personnel who get in trouble with the law now have a new venue in Escambia County. Judge Edward Nickinson, a state Circuit Court Judge in Escambia County, will be presiding over the new Veterans' Court. He likens the new court to the drug court, which has been operating in Escambia County for over 20 years. "About six or seven years ago, a judge in Buffalo, New York, Judge Russell, who is a long time drug court judge, began to see what he thought was a need for courts to deal differently with veterans, particularly veterans with combat experience". He says the idea is to deal with the underlying problem that may have caused the criminal behavior rather than just punishing the criminal behavior.
Judge Nickinson says Post Traumatic Stress Disorder will probably be the number one factor in bringing someone before the veterans court, along with brain injuries and even drug abuse…anything that could have been brought on by military service, particularly combat. It must be a pathology that is treatable and would benefit from the added attention of the court as well as the services available from the Veterans Administration. To qualify for the court an offender would first have to be active duty military or a veteran…and certain violent offenses would disqualify someone from the court.
While an offender’s counsel can request the veterans court for their client rather than criminal court…Judge Nickinson says there are other people in the system that will be looking for candidates. These include employees at the jail who do intake, private and public defenders, even prosecutors. He says there are several approaches then can take with people before the court. "For some offenders, particularly those without a previous record, we may allowing them to enter a plea of "no contest" , but if the successfully comply with the treatment in the program and stay out of trouble and do the other things we'll be requiring them to do as part of their supervision; the state may allow them to withdraw their plea and have the charge dismissed". Judge Nickinson says, because of an offender's record, not everyone will be allowed to do that. He's also says he's "not naive enough" to think this will work for everyone who comes before the court.
This is not the first veterans court on the panhandle. Judge Pat Maney, who Nickinson calls the godfather of Florida Veterans Courts, started one in Okaloosa County several years ago. Maney is a combat veteran who was wounded in Afghanistan.
"He has said that that experience opened his eyes about the needs of veterans coming before his court. The statute under which veterans' courts are operated under in Florida is actually named for Judge Maney. My eyes were opened by a talk I heard about a year ago by a lawyer from Minnesota who has been active in the veterans' treatment court movement, a fellow by the name of Brockton Hunter. I had actually been somewhat skeptical of if we needed a separate therapeutic court for veterans and this fellow talked for an hour and fifteen minutes and completely turned me around. And one of the things I did after that was call Judge Maney and talk to him about what he'd been doing. And Judge Maney has been very, very helpful in a whole lot of ways to me, on this, and I will get every bit of benefit I can out of Judge Maney's experience."
The first session of the veterans’ court in Escambia County was held this week. Judge Nickinson says he believes there will be no shortage of candidates for the court in the coming months.