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.
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