Specialty courts expand as success rates rise in WilCo

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Since Williamson County established its veterans treatment court in 2015, the court has worked to provide a program that helps veterans accused of low-level crimes get back on track through case management and peer-mentoring programs.

Will Gibbons, a veteran of the U.S. Navy and a Round Rock resident, said programs that help veterans are important. Gibbons said for a veteran who has committed a low-level crime, counseling and mentorship provided through the court is a helpful step.

“I do think that some guys get in trouble for little things,” Gibbons said. ”There are a lot of guys that get out and need help adjusting. Some people get a little lost.”

The veterans court is one of four specialty courts Williamson County offers. These courts work to keep low-level offenders from serving time or reoffending.

Increased caseloads in several of Williamson County’s specialty courts have led to the creation of new coordinator positions as well as an entirely new court devoted to adults ages 18-24.

Some of the most significant growth has come from the county’s DWI/drug offender specialty court and its veterans treatment court, which has seen its caseload increase from 16 participants in 2016 to more than 60 enrolled this year, according to Williamson County data.

Judge Laura Barker, who presides over the DWI/drug and veterans courts, said the programs focus on providing services in a structured environment. Barker said the courts help improve participants’ education, employment, housing and financial stability, among other benefits.

“It’s really about saving the souls of a lot of these individuals and really helping them turn their lives around,” Barker said.

In addition to the DWI/drug court, veterans court and the newly established emerging adult court approved by county commissioners in January, the county also runs two specialty courts for teenage offenders.

The courts seek to reduce recidivism rates, which track the tendency for people who commit crimes to re-offend, and promote public safety. Enrollment is offered in lieu of incarceration and often allows participants’ criminal records to be wiped clean upon completion, according to the county.

Most courts have a project team that includes a judge, an attorney, counselors, representatives from community organizations, probation officers and mentors that rally around the defendants to help them complete the programs. Most programs run 12-14 months, and in that time the defendant must meet court-designated milestones while receiving the help he or she needs.

“We just want to take care of our veterans here,” said Maria Alfaro, a probation officer in the veterans court. “Just some need more help than others.”

Williamson County has seen high levels of success in all of its specialty courts, according to county data.

Since 1997, when the first teen court opened, all specialty programs combined have had 1,185 enrollments. With 933 participants completing the program so far, the success rate is about 90%.

While each court functions differently, all courts help connect participants to resources many did not know were available, Alfaro said.

Alfaro said many veterans who face criminal charges “tend to get lost in the [criminal justice]system.”

Since it was established in 2015, the veterans court has had 133 participants with a completion rate of 94%.

The court addresses mental health and substance-abuse issues by providing resources many veterans may not know are available.

County data shows 845 veterans were arrested in 2018 and spent a combined total of 9,940 days in custody.

The number of veteran arrests has increased with 600 arrests in 2015, 700 in 2016 and 800 in 2017, but Barker said specialty courts like the veterans court ensure compliance, combat addiction, reduce crime and are cost-effective.

Williamson County is home to 38,000 veterans, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“They were under the impression that nobody cared,” Alfaro said about the program’s participants. “We prove to them that [they]are not forgotten.”

HELPING HANDS

The veterans court also offers a peer-mentoring program.

Jerry Sorsdal, the mentor program’s coordinator, said pairing a participant with a mentor is one of the most important aspects of the specialty court because it gives a participant someone to relate to who understands the difficulty of transitioning back into civilian life.

For Kevin Ross, a mentor who served in the Air Force for 27 years and spent an additional five years working at the Pentagon, the mentor program does so much more.

Ross said making the transition from military service to civilian life was one of the most difficult things he has done and motivated him to volunteer as a mentor. The experience of leaving the military after more than three decades of service led to depression and anxiety, which Ross said he still experiences today.

“When I left, I had a real identity crisis,” Ross said. “Instead of being in a very structured environment, I was in an unstructured environment, and that’s largely why many of our participants run into trouble.”

Ross said mentors are not part of the court system but work more as a guide and comfort. He said through sharing his story with his mentees, he can show them they are not alone, adding that the feeling of losing camaraderie built while serving can be very difficult.

“We all make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes leave marks. But I believe in second chances,” Ross said.

SECOND CHANCES

Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell said it is important to give people opportunities to fix mistakes rather than receive criminal records. Specialty courts work due to their focus on helping participants thrive and reintegrate into society, Gravell said.

“We should help you get to the right place mentally and emotionally first, and then we solve the problem of the criminal offense,” he said.

Gravell, who presided over teen court prior to his election to county judge, added that compassionate justice does not mean county law enforcement is soft on crime, but instead is willing to listen to the stories of people who make mistakes.

“What we’ve done far too long in the criminal justice system is that we’ve attacked the person,” Gravell said. “Let’s attack the problem.”

Additional reporting contributed by Taylor Jackson Buchanan

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Ali Linan
Ali Linan began covering Georgetown for Community Impact Newspaper in 2018. Her reporting focuses on education and Williamson County. Ali hails from El Paso and graduated from Syracuse University in 2017.
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