The Williamson County Mental Health Task Force has formed a subcommittee to research establishing a county veterans court.
In 2009, the Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 112 as part of Senate Bill 1940 authorizing counties to establish courts for military veterans at their own discretion, according to a report by the Texas Indigent Defense Commission. Since taking effect in Sept. 29 2009, 12 of Texas' 254 counties have taken advantage of the bill's provision, including Bexar, Dallas, Denton, El Paso, Guadalupe, Harris, Hidalgo, Tarrant and Travis counties.
How the courts work
Veterans courts have been established to connect veteran offenders to resources that target underlying issues that may have triggered their crimes, such as counseling for post traumatic stress disorder or alcohol-related crimes caused by traumatic brain injuries.
"The rationale for veterans courts is based on the combat-related stress, financial instability and other difficulties adjusting to life that confront many soldiers returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan," a Texas Public Policy Foundation policy brief said.
In all county veterans courts, participants must be veterans or current members of any military branch; have been discharged honorably or generally under honorable conditions; and be diagnosed with PTSD, a traumatic brain injury or another mental illness caused by being in a combat zone or similarly hazardous environment during their military career.
The bill, however, gave a broad outline for how veterans courts are established and run, and what crimes can be prosecuted. While Travis County's veterans court currently handles Class A and B misdemeanors and nonviolent felony cases, Harris County's court handles first- and second-degree felonies, and individual third-degree assault felonies.
"[Those crimes are] most connected to the PTSD, and PTSD is going to manifest itself in those offenses," said Mary Covington, special programs manager for Harris County district courts.
Sentencing in veterans courts also differs from normal court proceedings. Instead of sentencing, a judge holds regular hearings to check on an offender's treatment status. After completing counseling or a prescribed rehabilitation program, some courts allow a conviction to be wiped off a veteran's record.
"Just as with drug and mental health courts, successful completion of the court may result in a dismissal or reduction of the charges, a feature which helps participants obtain or retain employment," the brief said.
Current veterans services
Williamson County is home to approximately 38,000–40,000 veterans, though the number can fluctuate, said Donna Harrell, Williamson County Veterans Services Director. Each year, the county's veterans service office serves approximately 2,500 veterans, though Harrell handles up to 1,600 phone calls in a month. The office serves as a hub for veterans trying to enroll in benefits and helps veterans' dependents, such as surviving spouses.
"We answer questions concerning other benefits that they may have with the Department of Defense, with the Veterans Land Board [or] with the [Department of Veterans Affairs]," Harrell said. "Basically, if we don't have the answer, it's my policy that we will try to find somebody that does and get [veterans] the answer to their question."
Exploring a WilCo veterans court
The issue was introduced to the Williamson County Commissioners Court at its Oct. 9 meeting. The court discussed the feasibility of instituting a veterans court and the impact separate proceedings could have on other courts.
Funding was another issue brought up at the meeting. While the state does offer grants for veterans courts, problems could arise if the county does not receive a grant, the grant is not renewed or certain expenses are not covered.
"This will cost some money, and is this the best use of our money, or would we be better off doing these things in a different way?" County Commissioner Lisa Birkman said. Birkman and Commissioner Valerie Covey serve on the subcommittee.
The court tasked the subcommittee to examine other services for veteran offenders outside of a court, which could include training county judicial officials on veterans cases or diversionary options such as peer-to-peer counseling.
"If there's not enough to establish a court, that's fine. But we want to make sure that they look at this injury as a possible mitigating circumstance and don't just, for want of a better word, 'blow it off,'" Harrell said.
As it moves forward, the subcommittee will visit other county veterans courts and gather information on how a court in Williamson County could operate. Its research will include examining what type of cases the court would prosecute and what type of services would be offered to veterans found guilty of crimes.
"[There] are a lot of the questions that we have to see about—if we want to do it at all, and if we do, which way would it go?" Birkman said.
If the subcommittee decides a court is not feasible, it could recommend other programs be added to the county veterans services.
No timeline has been set for the subcommittee's research, and Birkman estimated it could take six months or more to gather information and form a recommendation.