The nation rejoiced at the end of 2011 when it was announced that an unprecedented number of troops would be returning home from combat after officially declaring an end to the nearly decade-long Iraq War. Over the course of the war, according to White House figures, more than 30,000 Americans were wounded in Iraq, nearly 4,500 Americans killed, and many more of the estimated 150,000 troops that exited Iraq in the last three years suffered illness not reported to the government.
“Part of ending a war responsibly is standing by those who fought it,” President Barack Obama said in anticipation of the arrival of returning troops. We, collectively, he said, owe “a profound responsibility to every soldier, sailor, Marine, and coast guardsman. We owe them a strategy with well defined goals, the equipment and support they need to get the job done, and care for them and their families when they come home.”
In Southeast Texas, multiple forces are at work trying to ensure a happy homecoming for both the returning troops and the community that had to make room for them. One of the major factors veteran groups are facing, along with housing and job crises, is ending up in jail for various infractions as they try to get re-acquainted with civilian life.
Ken Cavaretta, an independent nationally accredited veterans service officer serving Orange and Jefferson counties, said the local courts would do well to borrow a strategy from Houstonian neighbors and implement a Veterans Court – which would not only better serve the veterans housed at county jails but also save the county money in the process.
“I was really impressed with Harris County,” Cavaretta said. “It was really just an awesome thing, the way it works.”
According to Cavaretta, there are only three to four Veterans Courts operating in Texas, taking advantage of the SB1940 legislation enacted in Texas in 1999. The bill allowed for the development and funding of Veterans Courts through county commissioners courts for “persons arrested for or charged with any misdemeanor or felony offense” providing that the individual is a veteran, “suffers from a brain injury, mental illness or mental disorder, including post-traumatic stress disorder, that resulted from the defendant’s military service in a combat zone or other similar hazardous duty area; and materially affected the defendant’s criminal conduct at issue in the case.” Supporters of the specialized court say the program’s mission is to increase access to mental health and addictions treatment by diverting veterans directly into VA treatment, reducing jail time, costs and criminal recidivism, while improving mental health recovery and successful re-entry into the community.
Cavaretta said he has seen the program work first-hand in Harris County courts, a system that was recently profiled on the CBS news program “60 Minutes.” He said he is confident the veterans of Jefferson County – and the county budget – would benefit from the addition.
“Re-entry to civilian life is tough,” Cavaretta explained. “They’re taken into combat and their senses are depleted from them so that taking another’s life is commonplace and heralded. Then they’re just thrown back into a world where there’s no place for those skills to be utilized.”
According to Cavaretta, the situation is a breeding ground for developing post traumatic stress disorder. The veteran services officer’s statement is supported by a 2000 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, which cites the prevalence of mental disorders in the number of incarcerated veterans in local jails. The report found that 25 percent of incarcerated veterans were mentally ill, as compared to 15 percent of nonveteran inmates.
Jefferson County Correctional Facility Major Daren Cassidy said the county is currently holding in excess of 35 veterans at its facility, at a taxpayer cost of $77 each per day, or nearly $1 million annually.
“If we were successful in getting just half of the veterans out of this jail, we’d save the county a lot of money,” Cavaretta contended.
But it’s no free walk for the veterans. The court program would provide a participant with a court-ordered treatment plan continuing for a period of not less than six months, but does not continue beyond the period of community supervision for the offense charged. An eligible participant must be a veteran with an honorable discharge, on active duty or in the Reserves; have a mental health, TBI and/or substance use diagnosis that is directly related to the criminal offense; and consent to a clinical evaluation to confirm the pending or underlying offense was a result of a mental illness or substance abuse. The district attorney has final approval for eligibility.
A defendant would be excluded if they have a pending charge for a serious felony, delivery of a controlled substance or sex offense.
Cavaretta and a who’s who of veteran service proponents submitted the plan to Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick on Jan. 11 of this year. Among those in attendance were Beaumont Veteran Group Team Leader Lewis Harris, Jefferson Correctional Facility’s Major Daren Cassidy, Harris County Veterans Court coordinator Mary Covington, Department of Veteran Affairs Houston Medical Center Justice Outreach Coordinator Loretta Coonan, Veterans Court Advocate Norman Martindale, and many other interested parties including local judges and law enforcement agents from Jefferson and Orange counties.
Texas State District Judge Marc Carter, an Army veteran, explained why he started the Harris County veterans’ court program to a reporter from “60 Minutes.”
“I knew the VA had people, had doctors, that could help them,” he said. “Eighty percent of them would not have made it on probation but for the Veterans Court.”
According to Carter, “When we first started this idea, not everybody was buying in.” It took some time before Carter could get the court running, he said. Cavaretta is likewise finding it a tough sell to the local courts.
Jefferson County Judge Branick said, “We had some discussions, and the district attorney was going to look at it more closely.
“Based on the numbers we saw, we felt it could be handled with the existing infrastructure.”
According to Branick, the matter is still on the table, but little movement has been made since the initial January meeting. In Orange County, Veterans Court is also a stalled dream.
Kevin Thomas, a Marine veteran who has gone through the Harris County Veteran Court system, said he would be lost if not for the second chance he received.
“I started drinking heavily, and certain symptoms of PTSD kicked in. I didn’t know what was going wrong with me,” he said. Thomas said he lost his wife, the respect of his children, his job, and almost lost his freedom. Cavaretta came to the Thomas’ aid when the Marine vet was facing up to 10 years in a state jail, and walked the warrior through the Veterans Court system. Now, Thomas is in college, on the verge of completing treatment offered through the court, rebuilding his family life, and is a productive citizen in his community.
“I didn’t like the person I was,” he said. “I’m not that person anymore.”