Nov. 21—EBENSBURG, Pa. — Cambria County Senior Judge Timothy Creany removed a nearly decade-old handwritten "thank you" letter from a brown accordion folder that contained numerous documents connected to his days with the local veterans court.
In a reflective mood on Monday morning, Creany, who will soon retire from his position on the bench, then sat back in his chair reading sections aloud and paraphrasing others for a few minutes.
The letter, from the wife of a Vietnam War veteran, told the story of a young man who witnessed the horrors of combat and returned home a much different person. Of the altar boy turned warrior. Of the lost soul in a psychiatric ward battling post-traumatic stress disorder before PTSD was really understood. Of the person who got into criminal trouble.
But, upon his arrest, he was not put into the regular legal system.
Instead, the individual participated in Cambria County Veterans Court, where Creany, district attorneys, public defenders, peer mentors, law enforcement officers, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs representatives and counselors work together to help veterans facing legal trouble for nonviolent crimes.
The process worked, his life was changed for the better and the wife wrote the letter to thank Creany.
"There's just no price you could place on having someone tell you that story," Creany said during an interview in his courthouse chambers. "There's nothing you could say or do that would give you the same satisfaction and thanks that a letter like that sends."
Creany was among the founders of the county's veterans court back in 2013.
On Monday, he participated in a biweekly review of current cases for the next-to-last time before he steps down at the end of the year. He looks back at the work done by veterans court as having significant impact on the legal system and individuals' lives.
"In a lot of cases, with a lot of veterans, we get to the point where you can see the change," Creany said. "You can see the person coming in with a positive attitude. You can see the person coming in with a smile on his or her face. ... We see it time and again."
Those journeys often conclude with "a hug, a handshake, sometimes a tearful 'thank you'" during graduation ceremonies.
More than 200 people, most of whom were dealing with drug, alcohol and/or mental health problems, have completed the veterans court requirements. Going through the process can help offenders avoid jail time, which Creany estimates has saved the county more than $1 million in incarceration costs. Creany said the recidivism rate is under 10% among program participants, compared to the nationwide average for all criminals that can be around 50%.
"It's a real commitment on the part of the people that go through the program, but what it does is really addresses the cause for their violations, the conduct, the problem at the base of their issue and the base of their offense," Creany said.
Veteran Community Initiatives President Tom Caulfield described Creany as being instrumental to the development and growth of veterans court.
"Part of the initial success of the program was because of the credibility of Judge Creany," Caulfield, another founder of the program, said. "He already was a military person. He's a Vietnam veteran. He also went through the entire legal aspect right up to former president judge and has come back and also extended on this program as a senior judge. But he brings a credibility and an aura of getting the job done, and that's the bottom line."
Creany will soon leave veterans court, but Caulfield expects the process "to continue right on with making a difference in people's lives."
Judge-elect Forrest Fordham will take over Cambria County Veterans Court beginning in January.
"I also feel that this is a very important program," Fordham said. "Being a prosecutor in the DA's office before being elected judge, I could see that there were a lot of individuals that needed help and that this was the kind of court that could offer that help.
"I also think that I'm pretty fortunate that I've had the pioneers of this program, with Judge Creany and Tom Caulfield, who have really created the system, have worked through it to make it as efficient as it is.
"I'm kind of a beneficiary of that, and I'll just work hard to make sure that program continues to run. I'll try to keep it as successful as I can."