Institutions That Work: Dauphin County Veterans Court

ABC27 is starting a new segment called “Institutions That Work.”

So many have lost faith in our institutions, especially government institutions, but there are many out there that are helping people — at savings to the taxpayer. So we set out to find them. Our first example is Dauphin County Veterans Court.

We met 39-year old defendant Dion Magarago. He spent four years in the Army Old Guard in Washington, D.C.

They were the best years of his life, but when he was honorably discharged, old demons began to return.

“The lack of structure is not good for me and I slipped into bad behaviors,” Dion said. “I actually gave up, which I don’t like to admit. I gave up everything and was drinking myself into oblivion.”

Alcoholism and uncontrolled bipolar disorder. Multiple arrests for DUI. Charged with harassment and making terroristic threats. He divorced and is barred from seeing his son, who’s now 17.

Sitting in the Dauphin County Prison two years ago, Dion got a gift, an opportunity offered to some who’ve served their country: the chance to avoid the regular court system and enter Veterans Court. It’s the same legally binding system, but half the employees are military veterans, including the judge.

“We connected as veterans. I was able to talk to him and say I want to get the dust and the tarnish off of you and get you back to that proud soldier that you were,” Dion’s probation officer Brian Wagner said.

Dion was accepted into Veterans Court. There he found that his probation officer is a Navy photographer and his judge is a naval reservist; two people who truly care about him.

“You don’t just get to know them,” Judge Bill Tully said, “you really begin to care for them, and they become more than just a project, another defendant, so to speak.”

Veterans Court takes place at the Dauphin County Courthouse. The rulings are legally binding, but the atmosphere is different; a round of applause when a defendant enters the program. Also, there’s a volunteer mentor at the defendant’s side. In Veterans Court, it’s about supporting and healing those who’ve served their country. All current defendants appear there together, once a week in front of Judge Tully.

“It’s all done in front of all the others. Every one of them shares in the downsides and they share in the rewards. It’s almost like a family,” Tully said.

Dion credits much of his progress to the judge and his probation officer. He needs and respects the structure they require, something familiar to those who’ve served.

“The first word would be discipline,” Wagner said. “Dion will say to me, I don’t mistake your kindness for weakness.”

The results? Veterans Court has a dramatically lower recidivism rate. Only four percent go on to commit another crime. That’s compared to 30 percent in the regular court system, and that’s a savings to taxpayers because Veterans Court participants rarely end up sentenced to prison.

Next month, Dion graduates after two years in the program. Four others will graduate, too.

“My life was so destroyed,” he said. “I never could see my way out, and if it wasn’t for individuals that cared, I don’t even want to think about what would have happened.”

He’ll still be on probation and will continue with intensive addiction and mental health treatment. His record will not be cleared, but the charges will be reduced. And he believes he will get to see his son again one day soon.

Dauphin County Veterans Court has only been around for five years, but already its success makes it a model for other Veterans Courts.

Here’s who can be accepted:

– military veterans who are residents of Dauphin County. (Lancaster and York counties have their own Veterans Courts);

– those charged with any misdemeanor or certain felonies;

– those who need treatment for substance abuse disorder or mental health diagnosis.

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