By Jeremy Schwartz
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
In hopes of helping veterans suffering from mental illness and substance abuse, Travis County authorities are looking at creating a special veterans court docket, which would channel those charged with certain crimes into treatment and social services rather than incarceration. A handful of such courts have been created across the country since 2008, as officials respond to growing numbers of veterans returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As many as 30 percent are thought to suffer from illnesses ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury to major depression. Too many, officials say, turn to alcohol and drugs to self-medicate, often leading to entanglements with the criminal justice system. Last month, Harris County set up a veterans court pilot project, and Tarrant County last week decided to accept a $200,000 grant from Gov. Rick Perry’s office to hire staffers to manage a veterans court there. The Texas Legislature passed a law this year allowing counties to create veterans courts. Travis County officials say not enough is being done locally to identify veterans in need of mental health treatment. “Obtaining a criminal conviction or serving jail time … will not resolve the problems underlying the offense,” said Travis County Constable Maria Canchola. “Intervention for our veterans is essential.” The possible creation of a local veterans court was hailed by veterans groups as a vital step. “Treatment is far more effective and far less expensive,” said Paul Sullivan, head of the Austin-based group Veterans for Common Sense. Travis County Attorney David Escamilla said a team of prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges will need to work out several details before a veterans court becomes reality, including determining which offenses would be eligible and what services would be offered. Officials will also need to identify funding for the court. “But there’s a great deal of momentum to move forward with this,” Escamilla said, adding that the court would probably begin handling misdemeanor cases but could take on felony cases. He said the court would be modeled on the county’s mental health court, which handles offenders suffering from mental health problems in hopes of preventing repeat offenses. The nation’s first veterans court began in January 2008 in Buffalo, N.Y., where veterans are typically ordered to undergo counseling, find work and stop using drugs or alcohol instead of being sentenced to jail or prison time.