AUGUSTA — Justin Crowley-Smilek went to court multiple times as he struggled with the emotional scars of his military service in Afghanistan.

Each time, the decorated Army veteran was processed, jailed and released, just like any other defendant charged with criminal mischief or assault.

In November, one day after his last court appearance, he was shot and killed by police during a confrontation in Farmington. He never got the help he needed for post-traumatic stress and bipolar disorder, his parents said.

Crowley-Smilek’s name is now on a bill in the Legislature that would create a court program for veterans who are willing to plead guilty, get counseling and do community service. The program would connect them to caseworkers and veterans services and to other veterans who know what they are experiencing.

“If Justin had gone to court and had a volunteer mentor talk to him that day, I really think that could have made a difference,” said Rep. Maeghan Maloney, D-Augusta, the bill’s sponsor. “It’s a minority, but there is a significant number of veterans who come back with mental health and drug and alcohol problems that are a direct result of what they experienced overseas.”

Maloney’s bill, L.D. 1698, won unanimous support from the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee this week and is expected to be approved by the Legislature in the coming weeks. Gov. Paul LePage also supports it.

The bill would authorize Maine courts to create veterans’ treatment programs similar to drug courts, which focus on offenders’ substance abuse as a way to keep them from committing more crimes.

For veterans, judges would set specific conditions such as weekly court appearances, community service, and counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse.

Veterans who apply voluntarily would stay in the program for at least a year; failure to follow the program would lead to jail or prison time.

Defendants who are considered too much of a public safety risk and those charged with the most serious crimes, including homicide, wouldn’t be eligible.

Even if the bill passes, the program wouldn’t become available immediately statewide, because the bill doesn’t include any new state funding; but the law would help state and court officials seek federal grants to help cover the cost. Passage also would allow the federal Department of Veterans Affairs to add employees to attend the courts and work with veterans.

“I’m seeing some real hope,” said John Whalen, an attorney in Lewiston who is a Vietnam-era veteran. Whalen counsels other veterans, including some who end up in legal trouble and hopeless.

“These vets, they did their part, and maybe we can help them a little bit – as long as they don’t commit the crime again,” he said.

Whalen said the law would be an important step, but Maine judges are spread thin already and would have trouble spending the extra time with veterans unless the courts got more resources.

Kennebec County Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills didn’t wait for the law. She started a program last summer for veterans with mental health and substance abuse problems. She reviews their cases each Monday, which allows the VA to send someone to work with the veterans.

Three veterans are in the program and making weekly court appearances, and four have applied to join, a court official said.

In some other states, treatment courts for veterans have reduced dramatically the number who return to court because of new crimes, Maloney said.

She said such courts are an important way to tell veterans that, despite their crimes, society hasn’t forgotten their service.

Veterans are saluted when they come into court, she said, and that’s something that might have given Crowley-Smilek some hope.

John Richardson — 620-7016

[email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.