This month, Fort Hood – one of the largest military installations in the world – and federal prosecutors are piloting a veterans’ treatment court. This specialized court provides veterans who commit a misdemeanor on the post with the opportunity to avoid a federal conviction, if they can successfully complete treatment and counseling courses.
Texas has one of the country’s largest veteran populations with roughly 1.5 million living in the Lone Star State. There’s also, according to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, an estimated 11,000 veterans incarcerated in Texas prisons. The state made substantial ground to address the needs of this population, when in 2009, the 81st Texas legislature saw the passing of Senate Bill 1940, which established pretrial veterans court programs in the state.
Today, there are 23 veterans court programs in Texas. They’ve served as examples for the model Fort Hood looks to emulate. Like these programs, Fort Hood’s “Veterans Endeavor for Treatment and Support”, or VETS, is intensive.
Critics have called veterans treatment unfair, stating the United States Justice System shouldn't allow special treatment for a particular group. But Patrick Robinson, chief of federal litigation at Fort Hood, says the justice system calls for a analysis on an individual basis, which is what VETS and similar veterans courts do.
“This is not a get-out-of-jail-free card," Robinson said.
Robinson has been a key member of the team that got the VETS pilot program started – which is the first veterans treatment court program on a U.S. Army base. Similar to Texas’ other treatment court programs, VETS seeks to help veterans who have committed misdemeanors by offering them rehabilitation in place of punishment.
“Really when you think about it, what we’re looking for are offenses that are manifestations of the symptoms of their mental health or their substance abuse disorder," Robinson said. "And if the offense kind of logically seems as though its part of a larger, underlying issue then we want to consider that veteran for this particular program.”
The screening process for VETS isn’t an easy one.
A review panel made up of the prosecution, the defense, the court, pre-trial services, and other involved-agencies review all applications. Veterans, who meet all requirements, are then enrolled in the program, but must first plead guilty to their offense.
Steve Walden is a Texas defense attorney who has represented clients that have gone through the veterans’ court in Bell County. Walden says like the Bell County veterans' court, the Fort Hood program is demanding. Part of going through a veterans' court includes attending counseling sessions and bi-monthly court dates.
“You’re under a microscope for 18 months. Most people would say, ‘look, I’d rather just come in, plead guilty, take a couple of days in the jail in Waco and be done. That would be the easy route," Walden said.
If a veteran successfully completes the program, their original plea is withdrawn and their case dismissed. While no veteran going through the VETS program at Fort Hood could be interviewed for this story, Walden says they’re a hard-working group who are just trying to deal with the trials of reintegrating into society.
"At the end of the day what we want people to do is get treatment for their help and not re-enter the criminal justice system”, Walden said.
Accomplishing that goal and proving to be a successful model for other would-be veterans treatment courts on military bases, hinges on the involvement of veteran mentors. These are veterans who volunteer to help and guide those going through the program. Patrick Robinson calls them a key component to how VETS works.
“The mentors are critical because they provide an additional ally for the veterans," Robinson said. "But they also represent the community. Both the local community because our mentors are coming from Kileen, and Harker Heights and Coppers Cove and Waco and Temple. They represent that community, but they also represent the veteran community.”
That community – says Robinson – is what made Fort Hood an ideal location to pilot the program. This past week, the first veteran-clients enrolled in the VETS program and Fort Hood is looking to help more in the coming months.