Login | February 25, 2020

Akron Valor Court officer chosen for Supreme Court committee

Legal News Reporter

Published: September 6, 2019

Matt Esterle comes from a long line of veterans.

“I consider it a personal mission to serve those who served us,” he said. “Their bravery and American spirit is so huge.”

Esterle has been an Akron Municipal Court probation officer since 2007.

For the past five years, he has served as probation officer for Akron Municipal Court’s Valor Court, led by Judge Jerry Larson. The court is a specialized docket dedicated to male and female defendants with military service who become involved in the criminal justice system.

“Probation Officer Esterle is a key player in our Valor Court,” Judge Larson said. “He is a major reason why Valor Court has so many success stories. He is dependable, dedicated to those enrolled in Valor Court and passionate about our mission.”

Esterle’s skills have also attracted others in high places. He was recently hand-selected by the Supreme Court of Ohio’s Specialized Docket Section to serve on its strategic planning committee. The committee’s goal is to spread awareness for the Veterans Treatment Court movement.

“I consider it an honor that the Supreme Court felt I would be a good choice for the committee,” Esterle said. “It’s quite an honor – there is only one probation officer on the committee.”

The first of its kind to launch in the state, Valor Court is now one of Ohio’s 24 specialized dockets created specifically for veterans.

“I am very proud to serve our veterans,” the 49-year-old Akron resident said. “Everybody can make a mistake, but we don’t have to repeat them. The judge is 100 percent committed to veterans. Historically, courts have not responded well to justice involving veterans. They are different individuals, and need to be treated as such.

“They often have chronic underemployment or unemployment, no stable residence to go to or problems with alcohol. Alcohol is probably the No. 1 contributing factor in their involvement in the criminal justice system. We are trying to build a program so they can build a better quality of life. Then they can really start to live again, instead of just survive.”

Earlier this summer, Esterle and other members met with organizers from the New York City-based Center for Court Innovation in Columbus to start developing a strategic plan for guiding and advancing Veterans Treatment Courts. When a veteran returns from service, he or she may experience substance use disorders, trauma and/or mental illness that can lead to a criminal charge.

Veterans Courts are designed to reduce recidivism while providing resources such as behavioral health counseling and formal mentorship to offenders.

Judge Larson’s Valor Court meets two to four times a month, emphasizing alternative methods with a non-adversarial approach to address non-violent offenses. The one-year program includes frequent appearances before the judge, intensive supervision, linkage with the Veteran’s Administration system, resource assistance through the Veteran’s Service Commission, mental health and substance abuse counseling, frequent and random drug testing and graduated sanctions and rewards. Participation is voluntary.

“The program is not just for combat veterans, but for anybody who served,” Esterle said. “Veterans often have trouble in their employment and relationships. We want to make sure they’re aware they have veterans’ benefits available for their mental and physical health. Recovery is not just going to an AA meeting. The whole body and spirit is affected. We want to help veterans re-establish friendships and interpersonal relationship issues. We want to serve the veteran and the veteran’s family, but we don’t want to set unrealistic goals.”

Last year, Akron Municipal Court received a $6,900 grant through Operation Legal Help Ohio by then-Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office to go toward transportation needs of those served through Valor Court, including bus passes, gas cards and parking permits for valid drivers.

“It eliminates excuses for them not to go to their programs,” Esterle said of the transportation funds.

Esterle grew up in Lodi in Medina County.

After graduating from Defiance College with a criminology degree, he started his career at Oriana House in Akron as the Drug Court coordinator. In 2007, he was hired as a probation officer for Akron Municipal Court’s OVI Court.

He and his wife, Margaret, have three children together – sons Lee, 29, and Matthew, 20, and daughter Kayla, 21.