Veterans Courts: Where's the Money?

Veterans courts prove successful but lack funding

Veterans courts are growing in popularity across the state, but the big question is how to secure funding for this newest breed of problem-solving court. That's the upshot of testimony before a July 13 joint hearing on the topic, heard by the Texas House Com­mit­tee on Criminal Jurisprudence and the Defense & Veterans' Affairs Committee.

Lawmakers heard testimony from a handful of vet court professionals – judges, lawyers, and administrators – representing several of the state's larger jurisdictions, including Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, and Bexar counties. All agreed that the new vet courts, authorized last session, are a positive addition to the courthouse and a valuable tool for helping veterans who have run into trouble with the law get support and treatment. The creation of the courts hasn't gone smoothly in every jurisdiction – notably, in Bexar County, District Attorney Susan Reed was initially opposed to allowing vets to enter the court on a pre­trial diversion basis, preferring to prosecute first and get them to treatment later – she eventually rethought that position.

According to testimony from Shannon Edmonds, with the Texas District & County Attorneys Association, the biggest challenge facing every jurisdiction is access to money. "The big issue seems to be funding," he said. So far counties are financing vet court operations through a patchwork of sources, including grants from the Texas Veterans Commission, the Governor's Office, and the Texas Bar Foundation, in addition to various federal grant sources. (With the state facing a large budget shortfall next year, it seems likely that the patchwork funding situation will continue.)

Regardless, the vet courts – which seek to take defendants with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, or other combat-related disorders into a specialized court setting in an effort to divert them from prosecution and jail where possible – are clearly needed. Indeed, Travis County is in the process of setting up its veterans court, one of more than a dozen problem-solving courts in the county's criminal justice system. (For more on the specialty courts, see "Niche Justice," March 26.) According to Alan Peter­son, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and psychiatrist at UT's Health Science Center in San Antonio, anywhere between 5% and 17% of veterans of the Iraq and Afghan­i­stan wars are returning with PTSD or TBI. In all, he said, that means that nationwide some 300,000 veterans are at risk for PTSD. There's a "potential health crisis that is there."

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