By Paul Love
Assistant Criminal District Attorney in Galveston County, and
Criminal Defense Attorney (and former ACDA) in Galveston County
After coming off a drug binge, Petty Officer Eric C. checked himself into rehab. As he laid in bed, he pulled the blankets over his head to hide the tears that were rolling down his face. He cried all night as the reality of his relapse sank in. Just when he thought his life had taken a turn for the better, he felt the weight of the world collapsing in on him. There was a real possibility he could go to prison.
It would not be the first time he went to prison because of drugs. He knew if he went again, the relationship with his family that he worked so hard to re-establish would be destroyed. The overwhelming disappointment was all too familiar because he had struggled with addiction for over 20 years. But despite his relapse, he truly believed he was on the path to beating drugs: He was finally fed up with the constantly repeating cycle and did not want to continue down the path of destruction. For months, Petty Officer Eric C. had avoided prison for drug possession because he was participating in the Galveston County Veterans Treatment Court (GCVTC). It was there that, for the first time, he saw life on the other side of addiction as a real possibility.
Unfortunately, at the moment, he was on the verge of being discharged from the program, and prison was back on the table. If he was allowed to remain, he was determined to prove to GCVTC staff—and more importantly, to himself—that he could overcome his addiction. He just needed that second chance.
The decision to allow Eric C. to remain in the program would not come easily for the GCVTC staff. There had to be assurances that he was serious about completing the program and that his remorse not just a ruse to avoid prison. One of the first stipulations was for him to demonstrate some self-initiative for sobriety to prove he was ready to live a sober life. Secondly, he had to agree to re-start the program from the very beginning.
During this cautionary probation period, he would make good on his promise, vigorously completing every requirement that was asked of him and staying clean and sober. Eric C. maintained his sobriety through an outpatient treatment program he located on his own, maintained stable employment, and even enrolled in community college. After some time, it became clear that it was worth the risk to give him a second shot. The GCVTC staff voted to take a second chance on Eric C. and allowed him to start the program again from the beginning.
Within a short time, the GCVTC staff saw a man restored, the proud man who served honorably in the United States Coast Guard for six years on active duty and four years as a reservist. Eric C. was grateful that GCVTC did not give up on him. He arrived at every monthly meeting with a huge smile and full of enthusiasm. You knew he was in the room because his smile and energy were infectious. His smile was as big as his stature, earning him the nickname “Smiling” Petty Officer Eric C. Also just as obvious was his determination to successfully graduate from the program this second time. He attributed the difference this time to his willingness to fully engage the mental health treatment aspect of the program. Depression was a problem he had kept hidden.
Like many veterans, Eric C. believed it was a weakness to discuss depression, never realizing until he came to GCVTC that his battle with depression contributed to his past failures with other treatment programs. Once he bought into the need to address his mental health just as much as the substance abuse, he excelled in all the program goals. It would become less challenging for him to maintain sobriety and employment and continue to have a healthy relationship with his family. He was taking advantage of all the resources the program provided, and life was finally looking bright for him. GCVTC staff were all smiles as we watched Smiling Petty Officer Eric C. graduate from the program.
The experience and treatment he received while in GCVTC inspired Eric C. to become a certified substance abuse counselor. He plans to earn a degree in social work and get a job at the Veterans Administration’s Michael DeBakey Hospital in the Texas Medical Center in Houston to help other veterans battling substance abuse. He is dedicated and determined to leave no veteran behind with hopes of giving them that second chance—just like he got.
A little different from other specialty courts
This story highlights the value of a specialty veterans court. Like most specialty courts or diversionary programs, this court’s objective is to break the cycle of criminal behavior by diverting individuals charged with crimes into treatment with a focus on rehabilitation, as opposed to incarceration. Although based on the drug court model, veterans court is a little different. Regardless of the crime that brought an individual to the program, all of the participants share the commonality of being veterans. This common bond of honorably serving their country and being recognized for their military service sets them apart. Veterans courts capitalize on the participants’ understanding of the military structure and the principles of accountability and discipline that participants once adhered to as a method of establishing and maintaining compliance. The other unique aspect of veterans court is that funding and services are provided by the Veterans Administration. Since 2009, the VA has assigned Veterans Justice Outreach specialists (VJOs) to veterans courts around the country where they act as liaisons and advocates who obtain and coordinate the services and resources provided by the VA to address the identified needs of each participant.
How it works
A county commissioners court may establish a veterans court for those arrested for or charged with any misdemeanor or felony. As the Veterans Treatment Courts (VTCs) were first established, eligibility was open only to:
1) a veteran who
2) suffers from brain injury, mental illness, or mental disorder, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
3) that resulted from the defendant’s military service, including combat or other similar hazardous duty area, and
4) materially affected the defendant’s criminal conduct at issue.
While this was good start and still remains the law today, the legislature changed the law in 2015 to include military sexual trauma as a qualifying injury, but also added a catch-all opening up VTC participation to all veterans whose “participation in a veterans treatment court program, considering the circumstances of the defendant’s conduct, personal and social background, and criminal history, is likely to achieve the objective of ensuring public safety through rehabilitation of the veteran in the manner provided by §1.02(1), Penal Code.”
For our county’s program, a person who is arrested and identifies as a veteran will complete a veterans court application. The program coordinator verifies the person’s veteran status before forwarding the application to the prosecutor. The prosecutor then reviews the criminal charge and criminal history and will also determine whether the veteran’s needs—such as mental health, substance abuse, or primary care services—can be met by the program or if they exceed the program’s capabilities.
Unlike most treatment courts, the GCVTC does not automatically exclude veterans who are charged with violent crimes. However, the prosecutor will evaluate the concern for the well-being of victims and safety of the community. The duty to protect victims as well as maintaining a safe community will not be outweighed by the veteran’s needs. Each case is evaluated on its own merits, taking into consideration the nature of the case, criminal history, victim, safety of the community, and program resources to determine eligibility.
Once a veteran is approved, s/he completes a VA bio-psycho-social assessment, which allows for a treatment plan to be formulated and customized for that participant. Treatment plans can include anger management classes, relapse prevention, inpatient substance abuse treatment, PTSD support groups, 12-step programming, community engagement, and mentor support. The VA has also developed programs specifically for combat veterans who suffer from PTSD or substance abuse; who commit domestic abuse; and who need inpatient and outpatient mental health treatment, specialty substance abuse treatment, support groups for women, or services for LGBT populations.
The treatment plan is incorporated into the VTC contract. In addition to the standard probation requirements such as community service, substance abuse monitoring, and payment of fees, the treatment plan must be successfully completed like other conditions of the contract. In the same way that a probationer may be reprimanded for failure to complete community service, a VTC participant may also be reprimanded for failing to attend mental health appointments or relapse recovery sessions. The average time in GCVTC is 12 to 24 months, and treatment plans can be modified as different needs are identified.
When a participant successfully completes all the program requirements, the criminal charge is dismissed pursuant to the contract, and the Government Code provides for an automatic expunction.
Staffing and court
A core function of the veterans treatment court is the court’s “staffing” meeting, which takes place before each court session. During staffing, each applicant and participant is discussed by members of the VTC team. In Galveston County, in addition to the judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney, the staffing consists of the court coordinator, the court’s compliance officer, the county’s veterans service officer and, of course, the VA Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO) program.
The bulk of the work on the program is done during these meetings. While staffing is dedicated primarily to compliance issues, it is also time to leverage the court’s personnel to help the veterans proceed. If a veteran is having a benefits issue, the judge may ask the veteran to see Jeff Gottlob, our county veterans services officer (VSO), who can advocate for the veteran with the VA. If the compliance officer notes that a veteran is entering a bout of depression, the VJO may make arrangements for him or her to see a VA psychiatrist. And if a veteran is relapsing, the staff will discuss the appropriate sanction to regain compliance and sobriety.
The staff then enters the courtroom and waits for participants to arrive. At the scheduled time, the bailiff calls the room to “attention” as the presiding officer, Galveston County Judge Major Mark Henry (USAFR Ret. 1989–2010) enters the courtroom. The courtroom remains at attention and will render a salute once the order to “present arms” is given to the U.S. flag as the national anthem plays. Judge Henry then calls up each veteran by his or her rank and name and requires them to approach, render a salute, and report on their progress from the last court appearance. This is when the judge and veteran have a one-on-one conversation to discuss what’s working or not working in their treatment and where the veterans are held to account for their progress or lack thereof. The judge does this for each veteran, and when the session is complete, the courtroom will again be called to attention as the judge leaves the courtroom.
Galveston County’s VTC
The Galveston County VTC was established in 2013. It was spearheaded by County Judge Mark Henry, who saw the success of other programs around the country and recognized the importance of addressing the needs of veterans in Galveston County. With the support of the Galveston County Commissioners Court and Galveston County Criminal District Attorney Jack Roady, the GCVTC was formed.
The GCVTC mission statement is “to assist veterans and their families to become integral and productive members of the community through a collaborative effort and to restore their dignity for their selfless services to our country; we shall leave no veteran behind.” The GCVTC staff members are committed to helping every participant who enters the program with obtaining the services, resources, and support needed to successfully complete the program. The GCVTC goal is that every graduate is rehabilitated and, even more importantly, equipped with the necessary coping skills to avoid ever entering the criminal justice system again.
To date, 76 out of about 100 veterans have successfully graduated from GCVTC. All have stories similar to Smiling Petty Officer Eric C. Their success—and that of those who will follow their footsteps in the program—can be attributed to the commitment and tireless efforts of GCVTC staff.
For those who are wondering how to start a veterans court, the first step is getting buy-in from the community and government stakeholders. This means that the county commissioner’s court must be willing to establish the court, appoint a supervising judge, and most importantly, fund its function pursuant to the Government Code. The district attorney must be willing to participate in the program and assign a prosecutor who will buy in to the VTC treatment model. Also, defense counsel participation is required to take over for retained and appointed attorneys once a veteran enters the program. For more resources regarding grants and funding, check the Texas Veterans Commission’s website at www.tvc .texas.gov/grants/veterans-treatment-court-grants. For more on the function of veterans courts in general, check Justice for Vets, a project of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. Specialty courts, such as veterans courts, must also be registered with the Office of the Governor’s Criminal Justice Division (see https:// gov.texas.gov/organization/cjd/specialty_courts) per Gov’t Code Chapter 121. There are also grants available to help fund specialty courts.
Special thanks to the GCVTC staff:
• Presiding Judge Mark Henry (USAFR Ret. 1989–2010),
• Veterans Court Coordinator Specialist Matthew Parrish (Alpha Company, 4th Battalion 64th Armored Regiment; 3rd Infantry Division, 2002–2005),
• Compliance Officer Staff Sergeant Johnathan Bouvier (USMC 1993–2007),
• Veterans’ Services Officer Gunnery Sergeant Jeff Gottlob (USMC Ret. 1980–2001),
• Defense Attorney Amber Spurlock (USAF JAG 2008–2011, OIF 2009–2010, Baghdad),
• Defense Attorney Patrick Gurski (TXARNG 2008-2016, OEF 2012-2013),
• Assistant District Attorney Paul Love (First Lt. Paul Love, II, is on active duty in the USAF), and
• VA Veterans Justice Outreach Specialist Dr. Edward Henderson.
 Tex. Gov’t Code §124.002.
 Tex. Gov’t Code §124.001(b); Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Art. 55.01(a)(2)(ii)(a).
 See https://egrants.gov.texas.gov/Default.aspx for a list of current grants.