Major military presence boosts need for veterans courts in Central Texas

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(KWTX) The Texas Legislature continues to recognize the need for specialized courts statewide to deal with crimes committed by certain veterans, but in Central Texas that need is multiplied by the presence of huge numbers of both active duty military and military veterans, retirees and their families.

The four largest Central Texas counties, Bell, Coryell, McLennan and Williamson, also account for the largest concentrations of service members or veterans in the state, with well more than 150,000 active duty, reserve or veteran service members in Bell County, alone.

When the U.S. government’s military family multiplier is applied, the region supports more than 420,000 active duty, reserve, veteran or retired service members and their family members.

Bell and Williamson both have been operating veteran’s courts for some time and are considered among the premier veteran’s service providers statewide, Coryell piggy-backs onto Bell and handles veteran’s court issues through the already established project and McLennan is in the process of developing a veteran’s court system now.

“My hat is off to the county commissioners court for pursuing this issue that is long overdue but greatly appreciated,” Waco attorney Jon Ker said in a recent interview.

Ker, a retired colonel and has been for years a veteran’s advocate.

When the county commissioners last summer began investigating the issue, Ker sent the court a letter supporting their efforts.

The state legislature in 2009 passed a bill that directed each county in Texas establish a veteran’s court that was intended to take PTSD and other combat-related injuries into account when handling cases that involved veterans who were affected by the trauma, but had been charged with committing crimes.

In effect, the courts can issue a finding without guilt, prescribe a series of treatments, set in motion any benefits the veteran might be due, monitor the veteran’s progress through the court’s orders, and, if successfully completed, wipe the veteran’s record clean.

The issue of changes in veteran’s law rose to the level that the State Bar of Texas in early April, conducted a two-day seminar in Salado for attorneys that spoke only to military and veteran’s law issues.

“It’s important that we do this,” Belton attorney John Galligan, who also is a retired military lawyer now in private practice in Belton, said during a break in the seminar.

“There are so many issues that have effect on special veterans that others don’t experience, especially when we’re talking about (post-traumatic stress disorders) PTSD or some kind of closed head trauma that lots of these veteran’s experience in combat,” Galligan said.

“Those special conditions that mostly only veterans experience can make a person think or do things they’d normally not have thought or done,” Ker said.

“When you look back into their past you discover before they went to combat, they’d never have done such a thing.”

In many cases discussions surrounding veteran’s courts have to do with cost savings, that is, not holding veterans in county jails awaiting trial, or even after conviction in county courts, but both Ker and Galligan say the issue goes far deeper.

“True, it saves counties money, but the real reason it is so important is because we can take these impaired veterans, help them regain their dignity and abilities, get them out of the criminal system without a blemish and they become contributing members of society again,” Kerr said.

In Bell County, the district attorney has a veteran’s section that specializes in cases that are assigned to a veteran’s court.

By far most of the veteran’s court cases are Class A or B misdemeanors, but the law also can apply to certain felonies.

Such a case is heard in the veteran’s court, where the judge, after considering the issues that have impact on the case, can impose a sentence that includes a term of probation, participation in treatment programs if required, participation in training programs or rehabilitation, and order careful monitoring of all of those conditions.

When all of the conditions put in place have been met, the judge will order the original charge against the veteran dismissed and will order the court’s record expunged, which means there is no record of conviction in the case.

The trigger comes when a veteran is entering the system because law requires anyone who participates must qualify as a veteran who “suffers from a brain injury, mental illness or mental disorder, including post-traumatic stress disorder, or was the victim of military sexual trauma.”

“I fully understand that. I get it,” Bell County Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Chuck Cox said.

It is Cox, as part of his official capacity, who sees each veteran’s court case scheduled for expunction in Bell County so he can ensure every trace of a veterans name is scrubbed from the county’s arrest and jail records.

He “gets it” because he came to Fort Hood from his home in Dallas more than 40 years ago as a young military policeman and once his hitch was up, just never left.

The entire process in Bell County involves several entities, including the veteran’s service office, the district or county attorney’s offices, the sheriff’s office, possibly a local police department and a county court-at-law or district court, as well as, in most cases, a public defender.

Then there can be still many more entities involved depending upon what the judge might make part of his order.

In a county like neighboring Coryell, there is no way county government could provide a budget to cover those costs, so the prosecutors there have an arrangement with Bell County that provides veteran’s cases can be temporarily transferred to Bell County courts for execution, then sent back to Coryell County for monitoring, Coryell County District Attorney Dustin Boyd said.

“We don’t have very many cases that qualify but we can provide veterans with what the state requires they are entitled to,” Boyd said.

Coryell County does have a significant population of residents who could be eligible because Copperas Cove is such an important support city for Fort Hood, Boyd said.

But in McLennan County, up until now, there is no system through which entitled veterans can apply for programs they’re entitled to in courts.

In 2015 the county commissioners began discussion on the issue but it soon fell by the wayside.

Then last summer, after commissioners recognized the shortcoming, a Baylor Law School professor and the county’s veteran’s service officer, Steve Hernandez, developed a model veteran’s court program and presented it to the county for implementation.

It is that pattern that is driving the issue today.

Josh Borderud, Baylor law professor and director of the Veteran’s Clinic at the Baylor Law School said many times the problem comes in identifying and understanding all the services that already are made available to veterans and for someone who might suffer a mental issue because of a combat injury, the process only becomes more challenging.

Borderud said the veteran’s court could not move forward until one of the five state district judges in McLennan County first accepted the responsibility in his or her court, and that’s when 74th District Judge Gary Coley stepped up and said he’d do it.

“We couldn’t do anything until Judge Coley said he take it on,” Borderud said.

Coley said the decision was an easy one to reach: “My father was a veteran, Vietnam, and he didn’t have any issues with veteran’s benefits until he got older, but there were so many things we had to deal with when we were weaving our way through the VA programs,” Coley said.

Commissioners gave permission to re-model the courthouse 4th floor law library into a district courtroom and then hired former County Court-at-law Judge David Hodges to serve as special judge in the veteran’s court.

Hodges also will serve as associate judge in the 19th and 54th district courts where he’ll assist those judges with moving along their dockets by doing arraignments and hearing pleas or presiding over other hearings.

The McLennan County District Attorney will have to set up a system within that office to prosecute in the veteran’s court and the first assistant in that office has the chops, since Nelson Barnes came to Waco from Bell County, where the DA has the veteran’s court system down.

“It was part of my interview when (District Attorney) Barry (Johnson) and I talked about the job,” Barnes said.

“He said it would be my responsibility to set up the veteran’s court system in our office.”

Barnes said he and others involved already have completed one planning meeting and have more to go.

Borderud and Coley both agree the veteran’s court should be accepting cases on its docket by the end of the summer.