Veterans Court changes lives by offering second chance


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The Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston recently celebrated the tenth anniversary of the Veterans Court it helped establish.

The court marked the milestone by honoring the latest graduates in an off-campus ceremony. Each graduate faced felony charges, but rather than trudge through the conventional judicial system, they participated in the Harris County Veterans Court.

Marine Corps Veteran Marco Rodriguez faced a felony assault charge in late 2017.

“I know I have issues with anger and PTSD,” said Rodriguez. “These are issues I needed to deal with, so I am thankful I was allowed to take this route.”

De-escalate, communicate

Using alternative punishments such as fines, fees, community service, and mental health treatment options, the Veterans Court uses jail as a last resort.

“We try to avoid jail time for participating Veterans whenever possible,” said Judge George Powell, 351st District Court, Harris County, who volunteers his services to the Veterans Court. “I find it unbelievably rewarding. Seeing their success is my reward. They are working hard to improve their lives. I’m really proud of them. It’s my honor to do this. I love it and appreciate the opportunity.”

Rodriguez says he learned many things about himself through the process, including accountability and the emotions that pushed him to physical violence.

“I met with a VA family therapist for four months,” Rodriguez said. “It taught me to recognize signals and how to de-escalate situations. We focused on family issues and productive ways to communicate. I also talked about flashbacks and nightmares with my VA mental health provider.”

“My life would’ve been totally different without it.”

The first Veterans Court in the country began in 2008. The program has now spread to more than 400 communities. Houston’s Harris County was the first in Texas to pilot the program.

“We’ve seen the positive effect,” said Lori Coonan, LCSW and Veteran Justice Outreach specialist. “Veterans will tell you that without the program their lives would be much different.”

Rodriguez agrees. Without the Harris County Veterans Court, his life likely would have spiraled downward.

“Thirty seconds flipped my life upside down,” Rodriguez said. “Felony charge, lose everything, my job … everything. My life would’ve been totally different were it not for this program. I wouldn’t be focused on my mental health. I’d be focused on trying to pay my bills.”

The ability to focus on mental health is perhaps the most important aspect of the program.

“Many Veterans – prior to entering the Veterans Court – would begin treatment, but didn’t always finish it,” said Coonan, adding that court supervision gives them the incentive to complete treatment.

Get back on track

Manny Satarain is a senior Veterans Court mentor and likens his role to that of a sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous.

“We’ll take them to coffee and just talk with them and get them back on track so they can finish the program,” said Satarain. “I am here to help others avoid what I went through—to avoid being a knucklehead like I used to be. I just try to give them hope. That is my reward.”

Rodriguez was so inspired by his mentor that he now wants to become a Veterans Court mentor himself.

“It’s a support system,” Rodriguez said. “I can call my mentor for anything. It’s like being back in the military where everyone wants to help. They want to see you succeed. The support is unbelievable. It feels like family.”

Veterans who face felony charges and are interested in Veterans Court may request their current defense attorney and home court initiate an application for the Veterans Court.


Todd Goodman is a public affairs specialist at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center

Author

VAntagePoint Contributor

— VAntage Point Contributors provide insight and perspective on a wide range of Veterans issues. If you’d like to contribute a story to VAntage Point, learn how you can submit a guest blog at http://www.blogs.va.gov/VAntage/how-to-submit-a-guest-post/

Comments

  1. Paul E Myers    

    I hear a lot of talk about what the VA does. But I sure don’t see it. Maybe it’s all talk and NO action. Put another way, all farts and no shit. I was diagnosed with prostate cancer and here is what I got. “Yes Paul you have prostate cancer caused by agent orange, so have a good life.” I was given 100% disability with the new payments. NO MENTION of TREATMENTS. Yeah they sure do care about the Vets. BULL SHIT

  2. Isaac craig    

    Please help me to get involved in a vet CT here in the state of Conn i have serveal cases pending and need some one to get in touch with me and to discuss my situation where they might point me to the right people who will be willing to hear me out and help me with a second chance with the hope of having my case case dismissed. Thank you very much.

  3. Vicente Cintron    

    I have a similar situation. Where i was charged with domestic violence spent 16 days in floyd county jail for it. Therefore housing wont renew rental assistance with my name on the lease. In March 2020 i could be homeless. She’s dropped the charge but the state of Ga pick it up. I’ve been going to Atlanta VMC to see & counsel w a therapist. I haven’t gone to trial yet but was told if i went to i believe anger management the state will remove domestic conflict charge from their records.This is very first I’ve spent time in jail. It was very difficult 2 say the least to be in the incarceration environment.

  4. Louis Cohen    

    Recognizing Veterans Treatment Court in my area (Broward County, Florida) and the positive assistance it brings long term to the Veterans in the court, I have not asked this question before: in some if not many cases there are victims or plaintiffs or complainants…
    What occurs with the person or community who has felt the sting of the veteran or defendant?
    Also, what occurs within the record of the veteran? Does it say the veteran served time in the Veterans Treatment Court, and the case is dismissed? Does the veteran have to get the case or charge expunged after satisfactorily completing treatment, and how does the veteran do so? Some States or jurisdictions could allow only one expungement lifetime. What occurs when there are two different cases…?
    More so, I am interested in the family and victim of the veteran. Is there mediation, or therapy for the family?
    Thank you. Respectfully,Louis Cohen

    1. Louis Cohen    

      Peace, and good health for all. This is a continuation of the reply I shared. I was able to research my own questions:
      This is for the area I have shared in Florida. The victim receives communication from the Victim’s Advocate Unit, and also the Assistant State Attorney (Prosecutor) in the Veterans Treatment Court. This seems to be a working arrangement to assist the victim through the victims crime compensation fund.
      The Expungement removes the record at all levels (ex. police record, court record). The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) can observe it. Apparently when applying for a sensitive occupation (ex. in law enforcement, courts, where there could be a need for clearances) the veteran will need to make an admission to the offense, and probably an explanation? An expungement can be used once. Please read the statute.
      In speaking with the heart: all individuals are part of the human condition, individuals make choices that can be bring uncomfortable consequences. I believe individuals can bring change, and move on the path that will return the person into a favorable condition. This is something we grow from, and this helps other people grow. When you care about yourself, others will bring care to assist you. The idea is to communicate, ask questions and work toward the answer that has logic.
      Take care, and a good New Year… Respectfully, Louis

  5. No Way    

    Another program that misses the core issues with long term chronic, serious health issues ignored by the claims/appeal/court system that tries it’s best to allow disabled Vets time to die before they complete and award a claim. The entire VA claim/compensation program is a scam that relies on poor care and time to deny Veterans and their families compensation for poisoning, maiming and killing Veterans! Case and point, 10 years waiting for an award of 100% disability, a judge approved/awarded claim and I will be dead before I see anything for my wife and children. Yet the government will spend billions of dollars feeding, housing, medical care.

    Honorably discharged RE-R1 Navy Veteran

  6. Tanja    

    Hello – I would like to establish a veterans court in Loudoun County. In speaking with Buta Biberaji the new incoming January 2020 Commonwealth Attorney for Loudoun County this is one of our joint initiatives.

  7. Morrell Grant II    

    I was sentenced for a crime in 1984 for 5 to15 years. It took the Appeal Court 3 years to overturn it to the Courts and I was dismissed due to Res Justies Witness. Now after all these years I never knew why I couldn’t get a good job. They have me down as time served. This need to come off my record and I don’t have no way of doing that. Can someone help me to rectify this?

  8. Tarron Phillips    

    Is there a Veterans Court in the Los Angeles area?

  9. Victor Ruiz    

    I sure wish I could find help in California I went to county jail in Kern County and was refused medical treatment for my Glaucoma now I’m blind in my right eye but no one seems to care. I tried everyday to be taken to an eye doctor but was told “we don’t do that here” I mean WTF! don’t prisoners still have rights while fighting their cases. Now I can’t even find a lawyer in this cheap town, Bakersfield, with the balls to fight the county for the loss of my eye and the ability to continue work as a welder.. What’s the use. What is God waiting for? Just come get me outta here.

  10. Cornelius Summers Sr.    

    Can help be given to either expunge or upgrade discharges?

  11. Timothy Pena    

    I’m trying to get some clarification on whether there exists a Veterans Advisory Board for either the Governor’s Office or the A.G. Office. We have no felony Veterans Treatment Courts in Arizona and the 4th highest Veteran Suicide. I myself was sentenced in MC Superior Court to two years for a 1st offense pot charge and Prop 200.
    I was being treated for suicide ideation and PTSD only to be sent to prison instead because I am service-connected PTSD. This I know because as I was leaving the courtroom, Commissioner Annielaurie Van Wie said, “I believe you are using PTSD as an excuse to get sympathy”.
    I would like to invite your prospective as to the changing court system in Maricopa County and the State. As a native of Phoenix and from a veteran family of Morenci; I am perplexed at the unfair treatment being directed at veterans just because we are in an anti-veteran court instead of a proper VTC. Arizona possesses the 4th highest incarceration and suicide rates in the nation and I see a state hierarchy intent on keeping those taxpayer dollars going into the private prison system.

  12. Richard G Kensinger    

    We have one of these in Cambria County PA. I am a strong advocate for such interventions. It saves and rehabilitates lives. I conduct research on combat trauma. A few of the attorneys in the area rely to some degree on my published articles.
    Rich

  13. Hector Fuste    

    I would like that Veteran’s court would be established in San Juan, PR VA Medical Hospital.

  14. Myrtle M Gorisek    

    My husband is a army vet who served in Vietnam and has a felony on his record for domestic violence, he was on probation for a year he got off probation one year early for paying all the fines and good behavior, but felony conviction prevents him from getting housing. I tried dropping the charges but the state of Florida picked it up anyway. The incident happened Jan 17, 2016. Can you help? Thanks you Mrs Myrtle Gorisek

  15. Raegan Marshall    

    I am a US ARMY veteran and desperate need for assistance. It is too long to type . In short , a Dallas County DUI warrant issued Mar2018 . I was arrested in Mar2015. No resolution . I have problems financially and would live someone to contact me and discuss some avenues for relief and aid .

    Thank you ,
    Raegan Marshall

  16. robertforgie    

    I am a Honorable Veteran of both the Navy and Marine Corps . I was ” Blacked out ” on both alcohol and Substances on my wife and my 45th anniversary , we were short term separated at the time
    . The 1st time were not together on our anniversary . I am an alcoholic , I know now . I made a terrible mistake that night and was charged with a felony . This is the first time I have ever been in any serious trouble . I believe the arresting officer took advantage of me in my incoherent condition . I am also a retired U.S. Postal Worker with an excellent record . Getting a second chance in Vet. Court is my goal . The judge in my case was willing to let me sign up for Vet. CT. But the asst. D.A. on my case is blocking my admission . All I am asking for is a 2nd chance . Anything anyone could do to help me get accepted in the Vet. CT. Program would be a life changer for me . Thank You & GOD Bless!

  17. VINCENT Patrick Smith Sr    

    Michael E. DeBakey causes a lot of issues with a lot of veterans. Then they want to sit there and Pat themselves on the back for actually doing something that they should have done years ago. A service member has the right to have medical treatment within 365 days of his discharge… I was denied from day one and continued to be denied… So tell me again how Michael E. DeBakey is doing any damn thing to make any veterans life any better

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