AUSTINTOWN - Not long after he was diagnosed with a serious illness, Thomas Evans found himself in court.
"I had some depression and made some mistakes," Evans, 58, of Canfield, said.
However, with the help he received through the Youngstown Veterans Treatment Court, Evans, a Vietnam-era U.S. Army veteran, was able to turn things around.
Youngstown Veterans Treatment Court Judge Robert P. Milich, left, presents U.S. Army veteran Thomas Evans of Canfield, right, with his graduation certificate Friday from Youngstown Veterans Court. Mahoning County Common Pleas Court Judge John M. Durkin, center, looks on.
Tribune Chronicle / Virginia Shank
On Friday, he and Jason Gries received certificates from Judge Robert P. Milich during a ceremony at Harley-Davidson Bike Town in Austintown. Milich, who presides over the local veterans court, is credited with establishing a branch of the national effort in Mahoning County.
"I owe so much to Judge Milich and everyone involved," Evans said. "There's a whole team of people who are there to help you and that's what they do. In court they ask if you're a vet, and if you are, you can go to Judge Milich's court. I did and I got in the program. It's really made a big difference for me."
The ceremony marked the local stop made by the 2013 National Association of Drug Court Professionals Cross Country Tour. The tour is part of the initiative All Rise America! and is celebrating National Drug Court Month.
"It made a stop here because of the work we do with our drug and veterans courts," Brenda Rider, the court's video arraignment coordinator, said.
Rider and Milich said that U.S. military veterans who are convicted or plead guilty to misdemeanors or lesser crimes in Mahoning County may be eligible to participate in the veterans court rehabilitation program. Participants spend at least a year completing the program. In some cases, successful candidates may qualify to have the offenses that brought them to court expunged from their records.
"These are not repeat offenders or people who have committed violent crimes," Rider said. "These are people who have had a few bumps along the way and maybe for the first time ever have gotten into some trouble with the courts."
Milich said veterans court is distinguishable from other court systems because it makes use of a team of people, including volunteers, working on behalf of program participants.
"We look at where you've been, your job, your circumstances, what might have been the reason you ended up in court in the first place," Milich said. "This is a program that also brings your family in to it.
''We realize that as veterans there may have been things that have happened in your life, and as a result of that maybe that contributed to getting you to where you are. We find that for the most part it serves no purpose for anyone for these people to go to jail."
Milich said the local program was launched in January 2011 at the encouragement of a probation officer whose two sons returned home with several issues after serving in Iraq. Because the court relies heavily on volunteers, Milich said it has been added in Mahoning County with no additional cost to taxpayers.
Evans and Gries, 32, an Austintown native now living in Salem, are two of the seven people who have completed the program. Gries found himself in court during his divorce when he violated a restraining order.
"This program has helped me come back to life. It's reminded me of why I joined the service in the first place. I know I got sidetracked when I got out of the service," Gries said.
"I had forgotten some of the values that I was taught when I joined the Army, but this has brought them back to me. ... It's helped me remember who I am, what I want to be and the values I want to reinforce to my children,'' Gries said.