By Constable Bruce Elfant
"Tell me about your military service," Travis County Judge Michael Denton asks Joe, a 30 year old who was charged with criminal trespass and assault. Joe told the Judge that he served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. His unit was responsible for deploying Navy Seals and retrieving them from their assignments. Joe was the first Veteran to participate in a dry run of the newly formed Travis County Veteran's Court that will hear mostly misdemeanor cases involving Veterans who have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury or other similar illnesses resulting from their service in the armed forces.
Veterans Administration officials estimate that as many as 25% of returning combat troops suffer from some form of mental illness. Many Veterans who are suffering from mental illness struggle to maintain family relationships or hold a job. Hundreds of thousands of Veterans have lost everything and sleep under bridges and an equal number are incarcerated in correctional facilities. A study published two years ago by the Travis County Veterans Intervention Project (VIP) found that an estimated 150 arrested Veterans are in the Travis County Jail at any given time. Most charges involved anger issues that include disorderly conduct, assault, domestic violence and self medicating issues such as possession, DWI, etc. While most Veterans are eligible for treatment services offered by the Veterans Administration (VA) about two-thirds of them for a variety of reasons have not sought help. The VIP study also found that each Veteran has been arrested an average of ten times a year.
Last year the VIP initiated a pilot project led by Travis County's Pre-Trial Services Department to establish a linkage between the Travis County Criminal Justice System and the VA. For certain eligible Veterans, one condition of being released from jail on personal bond is that they be evaluated by VA professionals
for diagnosis and recommendations for treatment. Last year state lawmakers passed legislation that encourages counties to establish Veterans Courts. Travis County has done so and the first formal docket should occur in early December.
"What do you want to do for a living," asked Judge Denton. I want to be an Austin firefighter but they won't accept me if I have a criminal record," Joe told the Judge. Veterans who are referred to Veteran's Court will have the opportunity to get charges dismissed if they fully comply with court orders that include treatment and attending periodic court compliance reviews. "You risked your life for your country so we owe you this opportunity to put this behind you and I very much look forward to seeing you in uniform as an Austin firefighter. Everyone in this courtroom is pulling for you," Denton said as applause broke out.
Lisa and I wish you and your family a safe and happy holiday season.