By Chris Roberts
El Paso Times
EL PASO — Combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder who are accused of certain crimes may soon have a choice between a trial or mental-health treatment.
El Paso judges last week took the first step in creating a Veterans Mental Health Treatment Court. They authorized the program for Judge Ricardo Herrera’s county criminal court.
“I just think we need to get ahead of the curve a little bit and get this in place,” said Herrera, who proposed the idea to the Council of Judges.
He said the court would make sense for El Paso because of Fort Bliss and its explosive growth. The post has about 20,000 active-duty soldiers and is expected to grow to 34,000 by 2013.
The court would be geared to active-duty soldiers or veterans who served in combat zones or other hazardous assignments and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, said Cesar Prieto, who works in Herrera’s court.
He said the court for veterans would include felonies and misdemeanors, but not the most serious crimes, such as murder and rape. Prosecutors would have to approve a defendant’s participation in the program.
The plan is still subject to approval by the El Paso County Commissioners Court. One member, Dan Haggerty, says he supports the idea.
“They used to put a rubber band around your head and tell you to snap out of it,” said Haggerty, a Vietnam War veteran. “But some of these people can’t. … Absolutely, we need to move forward with it.”
Counties can create such programs under a bill approved by the Texas Legislature. It provides only general guidelines, so details of the El Paso program would be worked out among Fort Bliss attorneys, Beaumont Army Medical Center officials, the El Paso County district attorney’s staff, Veterans Affairs officials and others.
Participants in the veterans court would have to have a primary diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, Prieto said. Other service-related disabilities that could be considered are traumatic brain injury and severe depression.
Crimes that could be handled by the court include assault, possession of marijuana, drunken driving and family violence, Prieto said.
The court would have the authority to require attendance in rehabilitation, educational, vocational, medical, psychiatric or substance-abuse programs, he said. It also could require that a participant take medication.
Treatment would last at least six months, but no longer than the period of community supervision normally required for the charged offense. Participants who did not complete the program would be prosecuted.
The court for veterans would be available only to those facing charges in the civilian system. A soldier arrested on post would still be subject to the military justice system, including the possibility of court-martial.
Herrera’s staff is preparing to apply for a state grant that would provide $500,000 for one year to create a mental-health court for veterans. If the program is successful, it could qualify for $500,000 each year for five more years. Prieto said the court could be running by the end of the year.
“As more counties follow El Paso’s lead, we will be able to keep more veterans out of jail and quickly get them the treatment they need,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who sponsored the enabling legislation. “After successfully completing their treatment program, veterans can have their cases dismissed and avoid a criminal conviction, which will ensure they can get a job and provide for their families.”
State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, said the program did not give veterans a “get-out-of-jail-free card.” The requirements would be rigorous, he said, and the goal would be to transform an offender into a productive citizen.
“Our success in El Paso is tied to the troops at Fort Bliss and we have to take care of them,” Moody said. “If we don’t help them, we’ll have to take care of it at the back end.”