“Veterans courts” have developed across Texas in response to the special needs of soldiers who run afoul of law enforcement because of substance abuse or mental illness. Many returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, suffer from combat related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is an anxiety disorder developed after a person is exposed to one, or more, traumatic events such as serious injury, the threat of death, or exposure to combat situations. Alcohol and substance abuse commonly occur as PTSD victims attempt to “self-medicate” and numb the pain and anxiety associated with the disorder. Recovery from PTSD can be hindered or worsened by this self-medication.
Commonly, the PTSD veteran returning to civilian life risks conflict with the police as self-medication gets the best of them. A 2000 Bureau of Justice Statistics Report found that 81% of all justice system-involved veterans had a substance abuse problem prior to incarceration, 35% were identified as suffering from alcohol dependency, and 25% were identified as mentally ill. Traditional justice system services don’t adequately meet the needs of veterans entitled to treatment through the Veterans Administration (VA). Moreover, a criminal conviction can place a soldier’s VA benefits at risk. But the veterans court can help them take advantage of this specialized assistance.
Chapter 617, Title 7, Section 617.001 of the Texas Health and Safety Code authorizes the establishment of veterans court programs. In many of these speciality courts, if a person successfully completes a veterans court program, the court in which the criminal case is pending will dismiss the criminal charge against them. The veteran may then be eligible for a later expungement of these records, thereby cleaning their record and avoiding the devastating consequences of a criminal record as they struggle to succeed in civilian life.
Harris County Veterans Court was established to serve the special needs of our returning heroes. Brazos County has no such program . . . but they should. A local program could serve veterans struggling with addiction and mental illness in a way traditional probation services cannot and assist Bryan-College Station criminal attorneys to best represent their veteran clients. A local program could better connect our veterans with their VA benefits, assistance designed to meet their special circumstances.
Stephen Gustitis is a criminal defense lawyer in Bryan-College Station. He is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. He is also a husband, father, and retired amateur bicycle racer.