And Now Veterans: 'We Owe Them'

New veterans' court set to open later this spring

Constable Maria Canchola
Constable Maria Canchola (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Travis County is embarking on a new project that will establish, later this spring, the courthouse's newest addition: veterans' diversion court. The impetus for the court came nearly three years ago, from Precinct 4 Constable Maria Canchola, who knows well the reintegration difficulties faced by many vets. Her uncle and cousin came back from war changed men, troubled by "shell shock" they medicated with alcohol. And for 26 years, she has helped her partner – a "stoic veteran" – a former Marine who served as a reconnaissance sniper in Viet­nam. He suffered for nearly 30 years before finally seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, which he never connected to his drinking and which invariably led to run-ins with the law and more than one night in jail.

In 2007, with the number of vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan rising, Canchola sought to create a way to identify vets the first time they made contact with jail, in an effort to get them hooked up with services, often from the Department of Veterans Affairs. "The [VA] doctors tell me that the sooner you get treatment for PTSD, [traumatic brain injury], substance abuse, whatever your issues are, the better you'll be for the rest of your life," she said. Canchola wanted to help that happen; her quest led to the formation of the Vet­er­ans Intervention Project, a coalition of about 30 local stakeholder groups who have come together to "increase awareness of Veterans involved in the criminal justice system," reads the group's purpose statement, and to "ensure that Veterans are identified and referred to appropriate treatment and services which support reintegration and reduce recidivism."

Source data: Veterans Intervention Project Jail Survey, 2008<br>
Created by Travis County Office of Constable Precinct 5, 2009
Source data: Veterans Intervention Project Jail Survey, 2008
Created by Travis County Office of Constable Precinct 5, 2009

There is no doubt, says Canchola, that local veterans are in need. In a 2008 study, the group found that, on average, 153 vets are arrested in Travis County every month (making them roughly 3.5% of the jail population); 32% of those surveyed had been arrested multiple times during the 90-day survey period. The vast majority of cases involved misdemeanor offenses, for which up to a year in jail is possible; drunken-driving charges were most common, followed by assault and drug cases. Although the vast majority of the veterans processed through the county jail are eligible for VA services, the VIP study found that 65% have not accessed those services.

Now, not quite three years since Canchola set the process in motion, the VIP's work is coming to a head with the impending start of the veterans' court, designed to connect veterans in trouble with the law with services they need – VA treatment for PTSD, traumatic brain injury, or substance abuse; job-skills or educational training; and housing. The goal, says Judge Mike Denton, who will preside over the newly created docket, is to try to divert vets from jail and to help them get back on their feet. If they're successful in complying with terms set by the court, the pending charges can be dismissed.

"When I first went and talked to the defense bar [about creating the court], I said something like, 'There are a bunch of reasons to have this court,'" says Denton, who is an Army vet. "'The first one is an emotional one: I owe this guy. Whether he comes back without a leg or he comes back with PTSD, I owe him; we owe him. And I hope you feel the same way.' ... And I believe that. I do. Regardless of how you feel about the war, we owe them."

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