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Willoughby Municipal Court creates special docket to help veterans in the criminal justice system

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Posted at 9:55 PM, May 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-28 02:00:19-04

LAKE COUNTY, Ohio — There are nearly 700,000 veterans that call Ohio home and about 15,000 live in Lake County. Every year, about 50 of those men and women end up as defendants in Judge Marisa Cornachio’s courtroom at Willoughby Municipal Court.

The men and women are there for a variety of reasons.

“They can range from theft cases to OVI cases, to drug possession charges to even violent crime, at times assault, domestic violence,” said Judge Cornachio. “The question became how do we address their issues because veterans have a unique set of issues.”

She said she noticed the problem when she first took the bench three and a half years ago.

“At that time it was really something that our probation staff just could not address.”

Mark J. Shannon the chief probation officer at Willoughby Municipal also noticed the trend of veterans needing more than just traditional probation.

“Most individuals who are on probation report to their probation officer maybe once a week, once a month,” he said.

The court applied through the Ohio Supreme Court to create a specialized, veterans treatment docket.

It’s a case-by-case basis based on the charge, but court officials will approach a vet and ask if they’d like to be a part of the specialized docket.

Through various community partners, the program works on a wrap-around probation approach, with mental health and drug screenings, individualized treatment plans, and strict accountability.

Shannon said that strict accountability is something veterans are familiar with and has shown that they take too well.

“We are trying to create almost a military structure where they can report and follow the guidelines, just like the military,” he said.

Judge Carmachio said there’s a key element to the hoped-for success of the docket, though: peer mentorship.

“Even when they come away from their active service, it's inherent in who they are to help each other,” she said.

Al Raddatz is one of the first mentors to sign up for the program.

“I was in the Marines from ’90 to ’96, spent some time in Somalia,” he said.

Raddatz is also the CEO of Sub Zero Mission in Painesville. A team dedicated to getting the homeless off of the streets, especially homeless veterans.

“They have alcohol problems, drug problems, mental health issues, PTSD, all kinds of issues that led them there and it manifests itself in different ways,” he said.

He often finds men and women who have lost their way, abandoned by friends and family, and feeling alone.

“One in five of the people that we find are a veteran. By the time that we find the people, you’re kind of at the end of the road,” said Raddatz.

He said when Judge Carmarchio approached his team to collaborate with the special docket, he jumped at the opportunity because it gave him a chance to intervene earlier on in a veteran’s life.

“We don’t want to find them out in the woods drunk, we don’t want to find them at that point in their life where everyone has turned them back on them, and we certainly don’t want to hear about them later when they become one of the 22 a day who have committed suicide or taken their own life,” he said.

The special docket is one year long and voluntary. Veterans plead guilty to their charge in order to participate. Upon completion, it is up to Judge Carmarchio if the veteran’s charge is dismissed.

But it’s a chance to start over.

“I talked to somebody today who said ‘I am ready to make a change in my life. I’m tired of who I am right now. I want to make a positive change in my life,’” said Shannon.

Judge Carmachio looked at some of the other 28 specialized court dockets for veterans across the state and said the success rate is promising.

“The goal is that people do not re-offend,” she said.

There are a few veterans currently in the screening process to enter the docket. Judge Carmachio and Shannon are looking for more veteran, peer mentors. If you’re a veteran and would like to help call Mark J. Shannon at 440-953-4206 or email shannonm@willoughbycourt.com.