Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Travis County planning to launch veterans court

Having written over the weekend about the rise of Texas veterans courts, I was pleased to see Travis County announce they'd also create one in addition to their existing mental health court ("Travis County looking to set up court for veterans," Dec. 16):

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.

According to the Statesman:

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.

This new veterans court model - which garnered little focus, at least by me, when it passed this spring during the 81st legislative session - already appears quite popular, with three of Texas' largest five counties already choosing to launch an innovation that existed nowhere in the world this time two years ago.

I welcome the use of alternative sentencing and stronger probation methods through these type of specialty courts, though I recognize that, if they became popularized, veterans courts may pose equal-protection questions, as several Grits commenters pointed out. Since Travis County also has a mental health court for civilians, though (and since veterans courts are basically mental-health courts that cover post-traumatic stress), maybe this won't be too big a concern.

In the big picture, though, veterans courts are a terrific experiment: They apply evidence-based strong probation tactics from drug courts and other specialty-court settings theoretically to any type of offense. So they give an opportunity to test whether techniques that most judges agree are working pretty well on specialized caseloads for addiction-related offenses could be applied more broadly to all types of crimes. For that reason, I view such courts as pilot programs presaging how we may sentence and supervise non-veteran offenders in the future if it all works out. Perhaps that's too optimistic, but veterans courts definitely take the gloves off the old drug-court model by allowing it to apply to any offense, and the approach is clearly going to be tested in the near term, at least in these jurisdictions and probably more before all is said and done.

MORE: Murray Newman has a post up on Houston's new veterans court.


DarthVelma said...

I think they could avoid the glaringly obvious equal protection issues if they just included this as part of already existing mental health courts (or created those for everyone where they do not currently exist).

Anonymous said...

I consider myself extremely left wing, but I have a problem with all these specialty courts. I think I have to agree with DarthVelma.

Anonymous said...

One more benefit for the uniforms. If a teacher teaches school 20 years in South San Antonio, then finally goes over the edge and beats up a student, he's screwed. But if a soldier just got back from uniformed service and beats up someone on the corner, our society will go out of its way to make a special court to consider his special condition.

This is not justice. This is not efficiency. This is special interests in robes, people carving out new jobs and new practice areas. Ugly stuff.