Court program offers new path for veterans

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Focus is on addressing underlying mental issues caused during combat

For some combat veterans, trauma — mental or physical — is part of their service to our country. Such stress and turmoil can lead some to drinking or other abusive behaviors, and the accompanying run-ins with the law.

County officials see another solution.

The Denton County Veterans Treat­ment Court Program, approved by commissioners in 2009, is finally starting to become active, county officials said.

Denton County’s program is modeled after a successful program in Tarrant County led by Judge Brent Carr and is designed as a collaborative process between the court, defense counsel and prosecutors to treat combat-related mental illnesses that lead to the veteran’s criminal behavior.

“If the veteran successfully completes the program, his or her case will be dismissed by the district attorney’s office — essentially their record will be expunged,” First Assistant District Attorney Jamie Beck said.

Of the crimes committed by program participants, the majority will be drug- and alcohol-related, with some possible violence charges, she said.

“There will have to be consent by the victim for this to happen, and we only take a handful of cases — there is a very rigorous screening process they have to go through,” said County Criminal Court No. 3 Judge David Garcia, who will be hearing the cases.

Beck said not all combat veterans will qualify and certain crimes will not be accepted at all, including serious violent offenses, crimes against children and sexual offenses.

District Attorney Paul Johnson’s office and the probation department will work together to extensively screen cases and veterans who will respond to this type of treatment program. They must be either suffering from a brain injury, mental illness or mental disorder, including post-traumatic stress disorder, as a result of their military service, Beck said.

“They have to really want to be a better person and change their old ways,” Garcia said. “Our goal is to have them gain the skill set and education needed to deal with their experiences and allow them to continue living their lives in this God-fearing country they fought so hard for.”

Once the veteran is screened and accepted into the program, he or she must attend weekly meetings in a courtroom, closed for confidentiality purposes. The program involves three stages, and all cases will be deferred depending on the length of time needed to graduate.

“Some, for the first six months, might have an ankle monitor and/or have an interlock device in their car,” a device that ensures the driver is sober, Garcia said.

“The program is not a get-out-of-jail-free card,” the judge said. “It’s very intense, and they will have many appointments throughout the week with various parts of their treatment program to ensure they are staying on track.”

The Texas Legislature passed provisions for veterans court programs in 2009, and at least 10 counties across the state have established them.

While it’s too early to know the success rate, Garcia said he is optimistic there will be a tremendous response, but he acknowledges there will probably be a few failures too.

If a veteran drops out, he or she will have to follow the regular legal system guidelines. Upon entering the program, veterans sign a waiver pleading guilty to their offense. If the veteran does not follow up with therapy, or if the veteran is kicked out or quits, then the guilty plea will remain on record and the district attorney can proceed with charges.

So far, Denton County has one person who passed the initial screening process and has begun the program — which is individually designed for each person’s needs.

“I hope veterans will see this and recognize there are people and programs out there willing to go to bat with them for what they so rightly deserve for what they have done to our country,” Garcia said.

MEGAN GRAY can be reached at 940-566-6885. Her e-mail address is mgray@dentonrc.com.

 


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