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Mentoring program continues to assist veterans in criminal justice system

According to information provided by Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin, his Veterans Mentoring Program has been assisting veterans in the criminal justice system at no cost to taxpayers since it started in 2011.

Although it was modeled after similar programs around the state and nation, the district attorney and the VMP Steering Committee have tailored the program to meet the specific needs of veterans in Lehigh County.

The VMP has a line-item in the district attorney’s budget, however, that line is funded in total by donated funds from the Air Products Foundation and by forfeiture funds.

The program has received a total of $35,000 from the Air Products Foundation.

If funds remain at year end, they roll over to the next year. No tax dollars are used.

The program is indirectly supported by the county, which pays the salaries of the steering committee members, and by the district attorney, who has contributed forfeiture funds.

The program pairs volunteer veteran mentors in the community with veterans who are charged with summary, misdemeanor and nonviolent felonies in the criminal justice system.

Veterans are eligible for a mentor if they have an honorable discharge.

Veterans with a “general” discharge or “other than honorable” discharge are eligible on a case-by-case basis after a review of their DD-214s (military discharge), conditions of discharge and personal histories.

A steering committee administers the program. Members include representatives from the District Attorney’s Office, Lehigh Valley Pretrial Services, Adult Probation and Parole, Veterans Affairs Office, Drug and Alcohol and Mental Health, Public Defenders Office, and an assigned Veterans Justice Officer.

The steering committee interviews each mentor applicant. The committee meets regularly to review new mentor and mentee applications, pair mentors with mentees and review the status and progress of existing mentees.

There are 18 mentors currently in the program. A total of 44 mentors have been in the program since the beginning. Mentors range in age from mid-30s to mid-70s.

Mentors served in all branches of the military. Several served in combat in Vietnam, Kuwait, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Mediterranean, the Horn of Africa and Somalia. Each mentor undergoes six hours of training before being introduced to a mentee. Some of the in-person events including training, workshops and recognition ceremonies were delayed in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19 concerns. The Veterans Mentoring Program committee meets typically in person every two weeks to discuss cases and the steering committee is in regular contact to discuss cases, find resources and share feedback from mentors and mentees. The mentors work with mentees anywhere from six months to two years, depending on the mentees’ needs and progress.

Some of the mentors have continued to communicate with their mentees after the veterans have completed the program. The committee typically hosts a public recognition ceremony where mentees who have successfully completed the program receive a certificate and challenge coin. The Veterans’ Mentoring Program has had a quantifiable positive impact on the community in many ways.

At present, there are 55 mentees who have completed the program and have not reoffended. The recidivism rate over a three-year period is 53.4 percent in Pennsylvania, meaning more than half the defendants released will commit new crimes and be reincarcerated. Since the Veterans Mentoring Program started in 2011, the recidivism rate is 20 percent.

In keeping with the VMP’s motto of “Leave No Veteran Behind,” the steering committee has partnered with community agencies to help nearly 60 veterans who did not qualify for a mentor because their crimes did not occur in Lehigh County; they did not have a pending case in the county or the severity of their mental health problems would have jeopardized the safety of a mentor. Those veterans and/or their families were helped by:

•Obtaining DD-214 (military discharge) so they could apply for VA benefits and services;

•Connecting with VA services of which they are eligible but unaware;

•Referred for supervision to Special Offenders in Rehabilitation and Education program of Adult Probation;

•Referred to Team Mental Illness and Substance Abuse;

•Offering help getting Meals on Wheels, temporary housing and reduced fee LANTA passes;

•Arranging for transportation to VA Clinic, Allentown, other appointments;

•Helping obtain lawyers at reduced rate through Modest Means Program of Lehigh County Bar Association;

• Enabling them to receive help from Office of the Public Defender;

•Referring them to mentor programs in the county where crimes were committed or where they live.

“In the years since its inception, the VMP has had a profound impact on those who are involved in its work. It is gratifying to see the successes and positive relationships which have grown out of this program,” Martin said.