February 3

Success of Maine veterans court inspires plan to expand

A state lawmaker pushes legislation to add another location.

By Scott Dolan sdolan@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

For Travis Bentley, it wasn’t the daily barrage of bullets, explosions and rocket fire during his two tours in Iraq that proved too much to bear. It was the return to civilian life in Maine.

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Travis Bentley takes a break during a building construction class at Central Maine Community College. He said that if he had gone to prison rather than through the treatment program, he likely would have gone back to drugs when he was released.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Travis Bentley, center, with Lance Cpl. Gary Cozine, at left, and Sgt. Marcos Cruz, at right, in a transport plane while serving in Iraq in 2006.

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The former U.S. Marine sergeant suffered brain and back injuries as a result of bombings in Iraq. He was prescribed methadone and oxycodone for the pain and was living without treatment in York County years later when his reliance on the heavy narcotics turned into a desperate addiction.

Bentley said he was in such a foggy state of mind in 2011 that he hardly recalls robbing pharmacies in Springvale and Rochester, N.H. But he knows for sure that if it weren’t for the intensive support and supervision afterward in a pilot Veterans Treatment Court in Augusta that he would have gone right back to a life of drug addiction after serving prison time for his crimes.

“I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them,” said Bentley, a 29-year-old husband and father who has been drug-free for 2½ years now.

Bentley’s success story is a source of inspiration to state Rep. Lori Fowle, D-Vassalboro, who is seeking legislative approval to fund the Veterans Treatment Court so it can be expanded to other parts of the state. Under the program, veterans convicted of crimes can avoid lengthy prison terms if they meet strict requirements set by the court.

Fowle introduced a new funding bill, which will be aired before lawmakers on Tuesday, after attending the first-ever Veterans Treatment Court graduation last year and hearing how Bentley, living in Lebanon at the time, almost failed the program because the Augusta court was too far away.

Bentley is among the one in every six veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq who have had substance abuse problems. An estimated one in five of the more than 2.5 million veterans of those two wars has post-traumatic stress disorder or another mental health disorder, according to federal data compiled last month by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

There are about 11,000 documented veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom now living in Maine, with about 6,800 enrolled in the Veterans Affairs Maine Healthcare System and 4,600 actively using those services, VA officials in Maine said last week.

The difficulty for the state Judicial Branch is that there are no hard numbers to show how many of those returning veterans got in trouble with the law and whether expanding the Veterans Treatment Court program is warranted.

“We do not have any data on the numbers of veterans in the criminal justice system, and that is a difficulty in responding to this legislation,” said Mary Ann Lynch, government and media counsel for the Judicial Branch. “On the one hand, there is a reasonable view that, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ On the other hand, there is simply no data on how many veterans are involved in the Maine criminal justice system and are charged with a serious crime.”

Lynch said the veterans court in Augusta now has 15 participants and can accommodate 10 more before it reaches capacity. To date, 20 veterans have been admitted to the program. Of those, two graduated, two died and one was expelled.

The veterans court pilot program started in 2012 as part of the pre-existing Co-Occurring Disorders Court, designed to aid offenders dealing with mental illness and substance abuse problems. Justice Nancy Mills now presides over both programs in Kennebec County Superior Court.

The creation of the program was spurred by the fatal shooting by Farmington police of Afghanistan veteran Justin Crowley-Smilek, who was threatening officers with a ridknife, in 2011. He had appeared in court the day before the shooting and was ordered to seek psychological help.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Travis Bentley participates in a building construction class at Central Maine Community College. He credits a special veterans court for his success.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Travis Bentley works during a building construction class at Central Maine Community College in Auburn.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer


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