Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Dallas launching latest TX veterans court

Following Houston's lead, Texas' second most populous county will experiment with the veterans court model authorized by the Texas Legislature last year, reports Christy Hoppe at the Dallas News ("Dallas County creating court for veterans with combat trauma," March 31):

Soldiers who survive combat only to fall into addiction and depression could face a different kind of justice in Dallas County starting next month.

Specialized courts are starting up in major counties to identify military veterans who show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder or head injuries that could have sparked their crimes. Harris and Tarrant counties already have such programs, and Bexar, Travis and El Paso counties are joining in.

"The veterans have unique problems that come from their service not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, there's still some from Vietnam," said state District Judge Mike Snipes, who aims to hold the first Dallas veterans docket in April.

The courts, fashioned after drug courts, will be run by certain judges in each county. They will oversee the cases of veterans in which treatment and therapy can replace jail time and probation, and veterans can address their problems without compiling a criminal record.

"We're seeing more and more examples of people coming out of there with post-traumatic stress disorder, unique mental difficulties that have to do with combat-related issues," Snipes said Tuesday. He was in Austin for a forum on the special courts, which included information from other states that have already started such programs.

In 2008, Texas' prison system reported that 4,500 offenders entering the state's prisons had served in the military. That's about 6 percent of all new prison inmates.

The Legislature authorized counties last year to start the specialized dockets in existing courts, but didn't provide money for them. And so counties and interested judges have been scrounging for seed money.

Texas' first specialized court docket was held four months ago in Harris County. In one of the first cases heard, a man arrested for evading arrest after a minor traffic accident told the judge that he saw police lights and panicked.

The incident happened two years after he'd returned from patrol duty in Iraq. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and he had no prior criminal record.

Houston state District Judge Marc Carter said he has heard 20 such cases since he began holding hearings for veterans – many of them dealing with addiction, which is how some have tried to cope with the stress.

Veterans courts are essentially similar to mental health courts that (in theory, at least) use evidence-based strong probation methods, except with a more exclusive list of eligible participants. They're well-intentioned but also new and unproven. Veterans are underrepresented among offenders and it's unclear that their common background has any particular criminogenic relevance that would justify segmenting them out as a class. These specialty courts are an experiment, though, that quite a few Texas jurisdictions have now embraced, so we'll find out over the next few years one way or another how well they work.

See related Grits posts:


Anonymous said...

"The veterans have unique problems that come from their service not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, there's still some from Vietnam," said state District Judge Mike Snipes, who aims to hold the first Dallas veterans docket in April.

That's a given and I honor all who serve our country. It would have been helpful on the part of the news reporter to try and determine:

1. how many of the 4,500 had previous arrest records; and

2. how many of the 4,500 had criminal charges pending but charges were dismissed in lieu of them joining the military. It happens you know.

A good program here nonetheless.

sunray's wench said...

A very good iodea, but you can get PTSD from other events besides being in a combat zone. What about those who are suffering PTSD from some other event, don't they deserve some consideration too? Instead of fixing a small part of the system, this should be implemented across the whole justice system.

Susan Hays said...

Grits, I attended the vet courts forum Sens. Ellis & Van de Putte, and Rep. Vaught hosted on Tuesday, and I'm going to have to take issue with your comment that it's unclear there's a justification for segmenting them out as a class. I thought I (amateur voyeur of criminal justice policy that I am) was pretty savvy about the concept, but I learned a lot at the forum about how bad the problem is.

Vets in the system are more likely to be mentally ill than the general population (about 20% to 15%), more likely to be dependent on alcohol, and, in the good news dept., more likely to be employed when arrested. Many did not have mental health problems before serving our country -- they share a common source for the problem that led to criminal behavior. As vets, all can access services that the general pop cannot. Having a specialty court with staff trained in vets' issues is not only smart and compassionate, it's efficient.

I was also taken aback by the numbers entering the system. Harris County is booking in 350-450 vets a month. (Dallas isn't tracking them yet.)

Vets are also involved in getting these courts going. I can't help but think that a vet in trouble will benefit by having a judge, a DA, or a PD on his or her case look them in the eye and say "I served in Iraq, too." That moment of feeling understood has to go a long way.

Aside from owing it to the men and women who would risk an IED hit for the country, these courts are good policy. I expect they will do very well.

As a final note, I am also baffled why the judges setting these up are having to scrounge for funds. Why does the justice system have to look to outside grants in the first place? Isn't doing justice the most basic of government service? Why aren't the counties stepping up? Very penny-wise and pound foolish to not cough up $100,000 in extra staff costs to save 100s of thousands in incarceration costs.