Fregiato: Progress Made Toward Veterans Court in Belmont, Guernsey Counties

Photo by Robert A. DeFrank Belmont County Common Pleas Judge Frank Fregiato updates the Belmont County Veterans Service Commission on progress toward creating a veteran court in the county.

A court that would hear criminal cases involving military veterans from two East Ohio counties is being developed by a local judge.

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Sharon Kennedy visited local judges in March and proposed the idea of a veterans court program to address cases in which veterans are charged with a crime. On Friday, Belmont County Common Pleas Judge Frank Fregiato told the Belmont County Veterans Service Commission about progress toward that goal.

He said the program likely would be modeled after the county’s drug court, but Fregiato said he could not speculate about when the veterans court might be initiated. He said procedures must be decided on locally before a program proposal can be sent to the Ohio Supreme Court for approval.

“It’s what’s called a specialized court that’s got to be approved by the Ohio Supreme Court,” Fregiato said. “There’s a program we can adopt. There’s quite a few steps, it’s a complicated matter.”

One new development Fregiato reported is that he is in talks with Guernsey County Common Pleas Judge Dan Padden to provide a combined program for applicants in both counties. Fregiato added that he intends for Belmont County participants, and possibly those from Guernsey County, to appear before his court.

Fregiato said one problem with past attempts to start a veterans court has been a lack of participation. A combined court “would take care of the numbers issue,” Fregiato said.

Another factor to consider is the failure of many defendants to identify themselves as veterans. Fregiato said embarrassment might be the reason.

Cindy Maupin, executive director of Belmont County Veterans Services, said many veterans mistakenly believe that they must have served in a war or under other circumstances to qualify for participation in such a court program.

Fregiato stressed that many of the details of the proposed court are subject to change.

“None of what I’m saying is carved into stone,” Fregiato said. “We haven’t set up a specific criteria that makes an individual eligible for veterans court, but it’s clear we’ve got to resolve that the crime must be at least partially related, if not fully related, to the military experience.”

The judge said that like the drug court, the veterans court program would mainly handle non-violent felonies.

Fregiato added that he plans for anyone wanting to participate in the court to be required to enter a guilty plea. He noted that this would give the court the ability to enforce its requirements, such as psychiatric testing and counseling.

“I have no control over the individual unless I have a guilty plea,” Fregiato said, adding that successful completion of the court program likely would lead to the charge being expunged. “It’s a carrot and stick approach.”

Fregiato added that he expects such a program to be demanding of the enrolled defendants.

“It’s going to be a tough program. It’s going to be a program aimed at successfully resolving him or her of the issues he or she is having which brought them into the criminal justice system,” Fregiato said. “The person in veterans court will have to complete more programs than the individual that doesn’t go into veterans court.”

He said the counseling agency that would work with veterans court defendants is The Village Network, since the issues facing members of the veterans court likely will be broader than drugs and alcohol.

There are other factors to consider as well. Fregiato at first had thought a dishonorable discharge or a bad conduct discharge might make someone ineligible for the veterans court, but on further consultation he believes the veterans court may consider these situations on a case-by-case basis.

“You’re neither eligible nor non-eligible automatically. We’re going to address what the problem is. Maybe there’s an underlying problem that caused the bad discharge or the dishonorable discharge that we’ve got to address,” he said. “We’re going to take that into consideration, but that’s not going to block you automatically.”

He is also considering a mentoring program in which another veteran would act as a mentor for the individual in the program. The Belmont County Veterans Services office is providing a list of potential mentors.

“I think it’s going to be extremely helpful if the veteran agrees to go along with the program,” commission member Mick Zingo said. “The way Judge Fregiato explained it, I think it’ll be beneficial to the veteran. It’s not going to be easy, but if he wants to get his record clean, he’s going to have to go do it.”

Maupin said she could not say if criminal matters relating to veterans are common in the local area.

“If a veteran has committed a crime, we wouldn’t know unless he came to us for some reason. I wouldn’t know if it’s an issue or not. We’ll learn here soon,” she said. “We do handle a lot of (post traumatic stress disorder) cases.”

“If a veteran commits a crime, he may not admit he’s a veteran,” Zingo added.

“I think this addresses a reality,” commissioner member Bob Wallace said. “More and more we’re having issues with veterans because of their military service, particularly the PTSD aspect. As part of society, they’re getting more into drugs. … I think the veterans court addresses the reality of what’s going on with our young men and women who are serving our country.”