Five years after it was founded, a special court that helps veterans stay out of jail has more than doubled its workload, and its leaders hope it will continue to grow.
The county’s Veterans Treatment Court is a special program available to veterans who have been arrested for such crimes as driving while intoxicated. To qualify for the court, a person must show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, or a traumatic brain injury, or military sexual trauma and who are self-medicating.
The veterans court was established to provide veterans a chance to avoid jail time and keep a clean criminal record. Applicants are screened for eligibility for the program by Veterans Affairs doctors, who determine whether their mental illness or substance abuse problems are rooted in stressors linked to military service.
The program helps veterans get treated for their substance abuse problems, and connects them with services they might not be using, including doctors or mental health providers.
“It’s about treating the real problem,” said Galveston County Judge Mark Henry, who presides over the court. “The real problem isn’t the DWI they got, it’s the PTSD.”
The court is staffed by volunteers, including Henry, as well as defense attorneys and prosecutors who donate their services.
In five years, 40 people have graduated from the program, said Matthew Parrish, the county’s Veterans Treatment Court Coordinator. Parrish, an Army veteran, was hired in 2016 to help grow and better organize the program. The program was growing “exponentially,” he said.
One of the differences between the Veterans Treatment Court and the general justice system is that almost everyone involved in the veterans court has served in some branch of the military, Parrish said. It brings a sense of camaraderie and structure to the program, he said.
“It’s veterans helping veterans helping themselves,” Parrish said.
The court tries to recruit participants as they enter the judicial system. People who are arrested and who identify themselves as a veteran are flagged by the district attorney’s office as possible participants in court.
Ultimately, it’s up to an arrested person to decide to participate in the court. The court has served men and women, and has veterans whose service dated as far back as the Vietnam War. Some of the people in the court are still active duty service members, Henry said.
Though founded in 2013, only 10 people had graduated by 2016.
But more people have joined the program as it has become more established, Parrish said. Four people graduated from the program last month, and another four or five are on track to graduate in December, Parrish said.
The program helps save the county money, too, Parrish said.
“It costs, on average, $55 to $60 a day to incarcerate a person in a county jail or state jail,” Parrish said. “The treatment courts in Galveston County, specifically the veterans treatment court, are able to operate at a cost of about $3 to $5 a day on community supervision.”
The Veterans Treatment Court is mostly funded by grants from the Texas Veterans Commission, which each year makes about $26 million available to governments around the state to fund the court, mental health and housing programs. Galveston last week applied for another $250,000 grant from the state to help keep its county program going.
Henry is committed to keeping the program alive, he said. The county’s application specifically asks for help to fund a court coordinator position to help deal with the increasing caseload at the court.
Beyond that, Henry is working to raise more awareness about the court among the public and attorneys who have clients that might qualify for the program.
“Our hope is that we can treat and assist as many veterans as possible,” Henry said.