By: Bill Conrad
A new court in Collin County will offer combat veterans who have been arrested a chance to be rehabilitated rather than incarcerated.
The Collin County Veterans' Court was the brainchild of Judge John Roach Jr., presiding judge over the 296th District Court. A former member of the Marine Corps Reserves, Roach said he believes the court will have a large impact on the veterans in the program, noting that many times combat-related injuries lead to problems such as depression, alcoholism and emotional outbursts once a veteran returns home.
"I began seeing more and more veterans involved in the criminal justice system, where jail wasn't the right place for them," Roach said. "This is much more intensive than regular probation because you answer directly to the judge. We meet every single month to make sure the veteran is following the program and sanction them if they are not. The other side is we reward the veteran when they do great by helping them find jobs, treatment and housing."
Veterans who are accepted into the program have an individual treatment program designed for them and are assigned a case manager who ensures their compliance. Not all veterans who are arrested are eligible for the program, Roach said. Applicants must have a clinical diagnosis of a traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder, and that diagnosis must be linked to the crime that occurred. Veterans who committed violent crimes or crimes involving deadly weapons will not be admitted, Roach said, nor will those arrested for drunk driving.
The treatment process will take up to two years and as many as 10 to 12 veterans may be in the program at one time.
The program was officially launched Monday at a ceremony featuring Collin County veterans, including U.S. Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Plano), who served 29 years in the Air Force including stints in Korea and Vietnam. A pilot, Johnson's plane was shot down in Vietnam and he spent seven years as a prisoner of war before being freed in 1973.
"I can tell you the tremendous challenges mentally, physically and emotionally our men and women endure," Johnson said at the ceremony. "The feelings of loneliness, desperation and despair are not easily dealt with and at times have a lasting effect on our veterans. ... The transition from military to civilian life is a process that is not easy. There are ways we can help and this veterans' court is one."
Melissa Kale, an outreach specialist with the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the court was created at a time when many veterans need help after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Many veterans are in denial or don't know what to do with their mental health issues," she said. "They find themselves self-medicating and involved in the criminal justice system. This gives them the opportunity to get back on track and be productive citizens."
Participants who successfully complete the program will have their cases dismissed, Roach said. However, if they violate the terms of the program, they are sent back to their original court.
"They have already pleaded guilty when they come to me [for veterans' court]," Roach said. "They can't go back to the other court and say, 'I didn't do it.' Since they pleaded guilty, if they don't complete the program all that is left is seeing what the consequences are. You can have a guy on a felony charge that is looking at 20 years in the penitentiary if he doesn't get it right. But if he is successful he gets his record wiped."