Program focuses on those traumatized by war.
Published: 8:45 p.m. Friday, Dec. 17, 2010
It’s 5 p.m., and as the Travis County Courthouse empties out for the day, a courtroom on the third floor begins to fill with county officials, federal bureaucrats and young men with closely cropped hair.
Judge Mike Denton calls the next defendant, a former Navy special forces boat operator who served in the Gulf War and various operations in Africa. Shane Bryant faces a trespassing charge after an altercation with a group of teenagers on a day when doctors were switching his medications for symptoms related to post-traumatic stress disorder.
He’s not here to be tried or sentenced. This is Travis County’s new veterans court, where the goal is rehabilitation, not punishment. Denton is pleased to hear that Bryant has been following his treatment plan and is on track to get his charge dismissed if he keeps it up. “This is a great report,” says Denton, himself an Army veteran, before leading the courtroom in applause.
Last month, Travis joined a handful of other Texas counties in setting up a special court docket for veterans who have served in combat zones. Officials say the veterans court is a way to funnel former service members away from a downward spiral of substance abuse and criminality and into the court’s specially tailored program of treatment and counseling for mental and emotional disorders related to their military service.
“Yes, I know these guys have crossed the line,” said Denton, the Travis County court-at-law judge who has been tapped to preside over the court. “But we ask them to go to war, and we know that some of them come back having been adversely affected by that service. We as a society owe these folks. We need to make sure we bring them into functioning society.
“We don’t leave anyone behind — that’s a military tenet through the ages — and in my mind, this is just a part of that,” he said.
The more than 40 veterans courts nationwide, the first of which began in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008, are part of a growing awareness that more needs to be done to help veterans whose behavior has been changed by their war experiences, advocates say. With studies estimating that anywhere from 15 to 30 percent of service members are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with hidden wounds like PTSD, traumatic brain injury and major depression, the Texas Legislature approved the special veterans courts last year. Today they operate in Harris, Dallas, Tarrant and Travis counties.
The Travis County court, which is funded through Aug. 30 with more than $200,000 in grants from the Texas Veterans Commission and the Criminal Justice Division of the governor’s office, accepts veterans who have served in a combat zone, have PTSD or another psychological ailment related to their service, and are charged with a nonviolent misdemeanor offense.
They also must be eligible for benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs, which means that in most cases, they must have an honorable discharge. Officials say that rule might be tweaked to open the program to veterans with other than honorable discharges who were kicked out of the military because of behavior related to their combat tours.
The county attorney’s office oversees the program, which is similar to other special courts the county has set up for family violence and mental health cases, and selects candidates after they or their lawyers apply, a process that includes writing a narrative about the circumstances that led them to run afoul of the law.
“I’m in the prosecution business,” Travis County Attorney David Escamilla said. “I could sit back and prosecute them, but (for veterans) I can see an alternative. It’s our hope that we won’t see them again in the criminal justice system.”
Officials began pushing for the court after a 2008 study by the Travis County Veterans Intervention Project revealed some alarming numbers: About 150 veterans are booked into the Travis County Jail every month, which means they make up 3.4 percent of the jail population. More than 70 percent are arrested on misdemeanors such as driving while intoxicated, assault and drug possession. The study also found that while 86 percent of jailed veterans are eligible for VA mental health and substance abuse help, only 35 percent are receiving it.
“These guys are coming back with a whole lot of problems and trying to medicate themselves, often resulting in conduct that’s criminal,” said Todd Dudley, an Austin lawyer who is serving as court-appointed defense attorney in the veterans court.
“But what I’m finding is that these are not your run-of-the-mill defendants,” Dudley said. “They are extremely respectful. They want help. And this court allows them to move through the intricacies of the VA system.”
Sentencing in the court revolves around a strategic action plan developed for each defendant, often including substance abuse treatment, PTSD counseling and support groups, and access to other VA help such as housing assistance and vocational training. Veterans can also get help applying for disability benefits related to their psychological ailments. At each court session, representatives from the VA and other organizations are on hand to meet with veterans.
Once they successfully complete their programs, their charges are dismissed and can be expunged from their records. But veterans who don’t abide by the action plans’ terms, which often include abstaining from drugs and alcohol, face banishment from the program and prosecution through the normal court system.
During a recent hearing, Denton urged one veteran to stay away from drugs. “I want to emphasize, emphasize, emphasize that you stay clean during this program. We’re going to test you,” he said. “You don’t want to come back dirty because then I have to decide what to do with you.”
For Travis County Constable Maria Canchola , who officials said played a critical role in establishing a court in Austin, seeing the court in action was an emotional experience. She said she witnessed her husband, a sniper in the Vietnam War, struggle with behavioral issues and alcoholism that landed him in and out of jail, mostly for public intoxication. She said he wasn’t treated for PTSD for almost 30 years after the war.
“I know how traumatic it is for them, how it leads them to the bar, to drink,” she said tearfully after a recent court docket. “I understand that. They are at the beginning of their treatment. They have a long wayto go, so I wish them well.”
Jackson Glass , the veterans court administrator, said the court’s grant calls for about 20 veterans to be helped in the first year, but it could grow as needed.
“I think we’ll be able to take on more than that,” he said. “I can’t see why we can’t expand if we need to.”
The state grants pay for all of the court’s expenses, including drug testing, substance abuse treatment, attorneys’ fees, a program manager, a case manager and administrative costs, Glass said. He said that though most of the early candidates are veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan, the court is also open to veterans of previous conflicts.
Bryant, 40, is among the first batch to enter the program and a veteran of Operations Desert Storm and Shield nearly two decades ago. He also took part in several operations in Africa, including in Somalia and Zaire, before leaving the Navy in 2002. He was diagnosed with PTSD during a VA screening when he moved to Killeen a few years ago.
“The counselor told me, ‘You got PTSD.’ I said, ‘I don’t even know what that is’,” he said. Bryant has been trying to learn how to channel his anger through meditation and anger management classes, but on the day he was arrested, his PTSD symptoms weren’t under control.
While driving home in April, he got into a verbal altercation with a group of teenagers in another car, and it escalated into a physical fight. Bryant was originally charged with assault, but prosecutors reduced the charge to criminal trespassing.
“I had a bad day,” Bryant said. “It just happened to be the one day I couldn’t control my anger. They were switching my medications. I was edgy. If not, it probably never would have happened.”
Bryant said he is happy that something like the veterans court exists. “You’re getting this break, getting it expunged from your record,” he said. “Just take it as a blessing.”
- Letters: A Court for Veterans: An Idea Whose Time Has Come (nytimes.com)
- Veterans courts seek to rehabilitate offenders outside of jail (cnn.com)
- Prison is No Place for Veterans (criminaljustice.change.org)
- PTSD Programs for Families (vabenefitblog.com)
- Op-Ed Contributor: A Special Court for Veterans (nytimes.com)
- SENATE REPORT SUGGESTS VETERANS’ COURT | News Service of Florida (jamespatrick1.wordpress.com)
- PTSD and Relationship Issues (brighthub.com)