BOWIE — After tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Nicholas Stefanovic left the Marine Corps in 2006, but like many of his brothers, he immediately began to experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
So he found what he thought was a solution: prescription painkillers.
“Drugs are a very effective cure for mental health disorders,” Stefanovic, 31, said. “They eventually become the main problem.”
For three years, Stefanovic’s drug addiction was his main problem, which led to other issues.
“It took everything from me,” Stefanovic said. “It left me broke, homeless, so in order to get money, I was cashing checks that weren’t mine.”
In April 2009, the New York man was arrested for illegally cashing checks. But instead of having a court date in a regular criminal court, he was placed in a veterans court in Rochester, N.Y.
Veterans courts are similar to drug courts, and have gained popularity. Soon, they may begin operating in Maryland.
There are at least 130 veterans courts established in 35 states. Another 100 courts are in the planning stages.
A Maryland state task force has recommended that a veterans court be established at the circuit court level in Prince George’s County. The county is home to the largest veteran population in the state.
State Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Prince George’s) is a Desert Storm veteran who chaired the task force. He said a veterans court would allow fellow soldiers to interact and heal each other.
“Soldiers respond to soldiers,” Peters said. “If I’m sitting across the table from you, and I can say, ‘Look, I was in combat. I went through that. You can make it. You can do it.’”
Peters said the Maryland veterans court proposal is in the planning stages, and if approved by the Maryland Court of Appeals, could open by the end of the year.
Many experts said veterans courts save money; something Maryland could use as the state’s top budget analyst is projecting a $500 million budget deficit.
Matthew Stiner, a veteran who established a veterans court in Tulsa, Okla., said veterans courts save money because it emphasizes rehabilitation instead of jail time.
“Instead of spending money on incarceration, which costs about $32,000 a year [for one veteran], it costs maybe $5,000 ... to run one of these programs for someone to go through,” Stiner said.
The effort to spread veterans courts to more jurisdictions now includes the help of a famous actress.
Melissa Fitzgerald, known for playing “Carol Fitzpatrick” on “The West Wing” was just recently named senior director of Justice for Vets, an organization that advocates for veterans courts.
“This is such a pivotal moment in our nation’s history,” Fitzgerald said on why she joined the cause. “We get to decide how we get to treat our veterans.”
She said veterans courts support our ideals as Americans.
“We are supporting our troops,” Fitzgerald said. “We are honoring their service, and we are showing our gratitude as a grateful nation by offering them a road back home.”
But Larry Burch, a Navy veteran and attorney who represents many fellow veterans in criminal cases in Maryland and Washington, D.C., said court systems like Maryland’s take the wrong approach when it comes to veterans.
“They’ve still not treated the underlying illness, which isn’t drug abuse, it’s the psychological injury,” Burch said recently, standing outside the Prince George’s County Courthouse in Bowie. “The courts here, they don’t have time to delve into that.”
In communities with veterans courts, the payoff is sometimes clearly evident.
Veterans court activists say the majority of individuals who go through the program do not return to the criminal system, but instead become model citizens like Stefanovic.
He’s now working in the very same court he graduated from.
“It was what saved me,” Stefanovic said. “It gave me purpose in the end to try to get that opportunity to as many veterans as I could.”