Montgomery County moves ahead with veterans treatment court
Montgomery County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to establish the county's first veterans treatment court, aimed at helping troubled veterans and active military personnel avoid jail by getting mental health and substance abuse treatment.
"My heart goes out to these guys," said County Judge Craig Doyal. "They put their lives on the line and this is the least we can do."
The commissioners court's vote was the final approval needed to launch the veterans treatment court, which already has a website. The Department of Veterans Affairs will provide some resources for the court, which will have a designated judge.
According to local officials, veterans have high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, which puts them at higher risk of involvement with the criminal justice system. In 2007, about 200,000 veterans were incarcerated in U.S. jails and prisons, including a large portion who suffered from untreated PTSD, according to a study on the county's website. The treatment court will give veterans or active personnel a chance to get the help they need rather then being jailed and risk becoming a repeat offender.
The court is voluntary and involves at least 12 months of treatment.
To qualify for assistance, an applicant must be charged with a criminal offense in Montgomery County, and be either a veteran, on active duty, a reservist or in theNational Guard or state guard. The applicant must also have served in a combat zone or hazardous duty.
The offense must be the result of a mental illness, substance abuse disorder or traumatic brain injury suffered due to military service in combat or hazardous duty.
Court officials say applications will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis and "not all criminal charges are eligible for veterans treatment court." Prior convictions will also be taken into account.
When it comes to veterans, getting help can be difficult, according to a report from the Houston-Galveston Area Council.
In 2013, the council found that many Montgomery County veterans had been jailed repeatedly for the same offenses. Veterans often struggle with unique challenges within the mental health and substance abuse area, the council's report found.
The council concluded that the veteran population nationwide is severely underserved, with 96 veterans treatment courts in 24 states.
"Many times it's a challenge getting something approved on the commissioners court, but this one was something that we passed without question," Doyal said.
In the past, Montgomery County veterans and servicemen and -women needing treatment were sent to Harris County, which has a large veterans program. There are about 12 people from Montgomery County in that program.
According to Census data, Montgomery County has a veteran population of more than 30,000.
Judge Kathleen Hamilton of the 359th District Court will serve as the court's presiding judge.
She has also presided over the county's drug court, which helps to rehabilitate drug offenders.
Nate Jensen, the county's director of court administration, sits on the treatment court's steering committee, which will act as an advisory committee for the program.
"The benefit to a veterans court as opposed to other specialty courts is the camaraderie amongst the veterans," Jensen said. "The veterans are able to find a connection with each other because they share similar hardships, and we think that having peers will motivate them to do well."