Reentry and Integration Division
Legislators reviewing court program set up for troubled veterans
By Peggy Fikac - Express-News
Web Posted: 07/14/2010 12:00 CDT
AUSTIN — Retired Marine Sgt. Marty Gonzalez got a break when a judge gave him a way to wipe away a felony charge after he drove his vehicle into a house while on pain pills, his young son with him.
His story helped lead to passage of a state law last year creating special courts for veterans who meet strict criteria. Rather than focusing on punishment, the courts steer troubled veterans into treatment and other services under intensive supervision.
If they successfully complete the pretrial diversion program, they can have their records cleared, as Gonzalez did when he finished his probation and treatment.
Gonzalez, 30, was back at the Capitol on Tuesday as legislators reviewed the veterans court program. The decorated Iraq war veteran offered his story as one of promise and redemption.
“Honestly, at first, I didn't think I deserved the chance. But I got it, so I took it with pride,” Gonzalez said of the break he got from a state district judge in Harris County.
“I said, I'm going to do what I've got to do,” said Gonzalez, who returned home from war with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. And he decided that, “If I get an opportunity to help people, I'm going to help people.”
Veterans courts are available to veterans with a brain injury, mental illness or mental disorder — including post-traumatic stress disorder — linked to their service in combat. The courts are operating in Harris, Dallas and Tarrant counties.
Legislators at the hearing voiced concern over the lack of funding dedicated to the courts; some conceded that a large, looming state budget shortfall could make it difficult to fix that.
County officials told how they worked to piece together grants, including money made available through a lottery ticket dedicated to veterans programs.
Some legislators expressed worries that particular offenses might qualify for pretrial diversion in some counties but not others.
“Crime is crime,” said Rep. Joe Farias, D-San Antonio. He said officials should “catch as many as we can and prevent them from becoming professional criminals. ... They did serve our country. We owe them a great deal.”
Bexar County is among those readying its own veterans court program. Its officials plan to visit Harris County next week to learn from its work, Bexar County veterans service officer Craig Erickson told the joint meeting of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee and a subcommittee of the House Defense & Veterans' Affairs Committee.
The Bexar County program appears on track after its supporters reached an accommodation with District Attorney Susan Reed over the issue of pretrial diversion and the expunging of criminal records.
First Assistant District Attorney Cliff Herberg emphasized that the Bexar County office didn't oppose veterans courts but rather “a blanket pretrial diversion.”
As envisioned, according to a letter to lawmakers from Aurora M. Sanchez, county director of community resources, veterans arrested for nonviolent misdemeanor offenses will be eligible for the Bexar County veterans court, and some felony offenses could be eligible on a case-by-case basis. Sexual offenses won't qualify.
Sanchez wrote that officials estimate that the court will serve 80 veterans in its first operational year. It is waiting for action on a grant.
Herberg emphasized that every veteran's case, including misdemeanors, will be considered on its own merits to see if it is suitable for pretrial diversion. Even for those who don't get pretrial diversion, there will be an effort to ensure they get services through the Veterans Administration and elsewhere, he said.