McLennan County Veterans Court (copy)

McLennan County Veterans Service Officer Steve Hernandez (right) shares ideas with county commissioners about starting a veterans court during a meeting last year. The new court is accepting its first applications on Veterans Day.

Military veterans who run afoul of the law now have their own court in McLennan County. It will start taking cases on Monday, Veterans Day.

It will focus on treatment instead of incarceration, and veterans’ advocates hope it will reduce the number of troubled men and women who served their country and now risk serving time. The target population is the offender whose military experience and background “contributed to the commission of the offense for which they are charged,” according to the county.

A vet addled by alcohol, drugs or post traumatic stress, for example, might appear before this new McLennan County Veterans Treatment Court. So might a vet charged with unlawfully carrying a weapon, having not adapted to civilian life following a tour of duty that included proficiency with a gun.

“There are veterans treatment courts all over the country. It’s time we here in McLennan County take advantage of services offered to veterans and help people turn their lives around,” said Judge Gary Coley of Waco’s 74th State District Court. He will preside over hearings to be held every other Wednesday, for now, in the newly remodeled county commissioners’ courtroom on the first floor of the courthouse, Fifth Street and Washington Avenue.

Symbolically, the court will begin receiving applications Monday from representatives of veterans wanting to use the court, Coley said.

“These are individuals who will need ongoing treatment long after they leave the criminal justice system,” Coley said. “Our goal is to provide stability in their lives. They have certainly earned benefits by serving their country, especially those available through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and we intend to plug vets into getting them.”

The program is a collaboration between Veterans Affairs, the McLennan County District Attorney’s Office, the McLennan County Community Supervision & Corrections Department, the Baylor Law Veterans Clinic and the Heart of Texas Region MHMR Veterans One Stop Program, according to a press release.

The public, the District Attorney’s Office, defense attorneys and veterans advocacy groups will get involved in filing applications, Coley said.

The county has appropriated close to $70,000 to cover personnel costs and $3,000 for operating expenses relating to the veterans court for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, county auditor Frances Bartlett said.

“In addition, the county submitted an application in October to the Texas Veterans Commission to apply for a reimbursing grant that would be used to assist the county in addressing the needs of the Veterans Treatment Center,” Bartlett said in an email response to questions from the Tribune-Herald. “The grant application submission included requests of $88,845 related to personnel costs and $45,839 related to operations costs.”

If awarded to the county, the grant would become effective in July 2020.

County Veterans Service Officer Steve Hernandez said he has lobbied for such a court and applauds it coming to fruition.

He visits veterans at county lockups and knows the challenges they face.

“We are looking for veterans who have had trauma — a traumatic brain injury, a PTSD experience or even military-related sexual trauma — causing them to be violent or to have some sort of addiction or, unfortunately, a self-medicating method that involves illicit drugs or excessive drinking, leading to DWIs,” Hernandez said. “They may never have assessed themselves and actively gone for help, or may have gone for help at one time.”

Amy Wade Lowrey brings expertise and insight to the Veterans Treatment Court as the newly hired specialty court coordinator, according to the press release.

“She is a licensed professional counselor and licensed chemical dependency counselor with over a decade experience working in the courts and criminal justice system,” and has worked with veterans, the press release states.

Joshua Borderud, an attorney and self-described “Army brat” who grew up in a military family and lived on bases, including Fort Hood, oversees Baylor University’s Veterans Clinic. Founded in 2012, it has assisted almost a thousand veterans and military families with legal services, according to its website. It is available to active duty members of every branch, spouses, reservists, retirees and members of the National Guard. Its costs are covered, in part, by grants from the Texas Access to Justice Foundation.

The website includes testimonials, one from a 98-year-old Spanish-speaking vet who received assistance with preparing a will, another from an 83-year-old Army veteran living on less than $1,300 a month needing estate planning.

Several local attorneys perform work for the clinic at no charge.

Borderud said its vision now will extend to Veterans Treatment Court. Its legal team meets with vets weekly at Veterans One Stop on La Salle Avenue.

“I will serve as defense counsel for veterans in the program,” Borderud said. “If it is a non-criminal issue, a landlord-tenant matter, for example, we will use the resources of the Veterans Clinic, all at no charge to county taxpayers. Baylor Law School students serve as fact gatherers and initial screeners. They will have a sit-down and offer advice and counseling. If a veteran qualifies for the program and needs further representation, we refer the matter to local attorneys on a pro bono basis.”

Veterans or spouses with a household income up to 200% of the federal poverty line may qualify for free legal services. The federal poverty line for 2019 has been set at $12,490 a year for individuals, $16,910 for households with two members and $25,750 for four-person households.

“This is not a shortcut,” Coley said of Veterans Treatment Court. “It will involve individuals who have reached a point in their lives when they have to make some changes. They are willing to go above and beyond. They will have a lot of appointments, a lot of obligations. There will be people involved dedicated to finding time to help them, and commitment is a must.

“There are folks already expressing an interest in applying to participate. I can tell you now some will not qualify. There will be setbacks. Not everybody is going to come in and maintain sobriety and do well for 12 consecutive months. Most folks involved will be out on bond, out on bail, possibly on probation, and a critical component is participating in VA services. If they can’t do that, this is not a viable pathway.”

Defendants charged with violent offenses likely would not be considered, Coley said.

Applicants must meet the following criteria:

  • Be at least 18 years of age
  • Be able to prove veteran status and eligibility for VA care
  • Must be approved by the McLennan County District Attorney’s Office
  • Must have legal charges in and work or reside in McLennan County. Exceptions may be made for those living in adjacent counties
  • Should not have holds or warrants pending from other jurisdictions or have other criminal cases pending
  • Must be physically and mentally capable of participating in the program
  • Be willing to participate in the conditions of the court.

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