Texas Perspectives

Veterans Treatment Courts Prioritize Recovery Over Punishment

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As a country, we honor our veterans in various ways. We stand when the national anthem is played, we take our hats off during the pledge of allegiance, and we recognize national holidays such as Memorial Day and Veterans Day. 

Although these displays are symbolic and meaningful, Texas needs to take more tangible steps to ensure veterans are honored one other way: with opportunity to achieve the best quality of life possible.

That means supporting and expanding Veterans Treatment Courts.

Of the 1.68 million veterans living in Texas, 11,000 are incarcerated. Because Texas has the largest criminal justice system and the second largest number of veterans, we are probably pushing above the 10 percent national rate of veteran incarceration.

Rather than being content to lock up our former service members, the Texas Legislature passed a bill in 2009 that authorized the creation of specialty courts for veterans charged with misdemeanor or nonviolent felony offenses.

These specialty courts, similar to Drug Courts and Mental Health Courts, are known as Veterans Treatment Courts, and they provide an alternative to incarceration through treatment, accountability and structure, lasting for up to two years.

The courts partner with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the State of Texas to provide mental health treatment and support, and they offer case management and service coordination to support access to employment, education, housing and benefits counseling.

This is exactly what we need more of in Texas, and the public, along with lawmakers, ought to take note.

Nationally, Veterans Treatment Courts have shown a 98 percent success rate, helping veterans truly return home while reducing the human cost of war. Rates of national veteran incarceration have also declined since 2004, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, with one of the reasons possibly being Veterans Treatment Courts.

When 22 veterans die by suicide each day, we cannot ignore therapeutic, effective solutions as a positive alternative to more punitive measures.

Not only can Veterans Treatment Courts change the lives of veterans and their families, they can also produce cost savings for state and local governments. In Buffalo, New York, for instance, where the first Veterans Court began, city officials have reported cost savings in the thousands of dollars.

We don’t know how these courts are doing in Texas, however, because funding to evaluate them is sparse and actual return on investment is yet to be understood. But similar specialty courts can save as much as $27 for every $1 invested, and whereas incarceration can cost $22,000 annually for each individual, specialty courts cost about $7,000 per individual (NADCP).

In a state such as Texas with a high population of veterans, these types of courts could produce significant financial savings.

Texas currently has 20 Veterans Treatment Courts mainly in the metro areas such as Bexar, Collin, Dallas, Denton, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Hays, Hidalgo, Midland, Smith, Tarrant, Travis and Webb counties, among others. Another 240 counties make up the Lone Star State and are home to veterans and their families — families who aim to live, work and thrive in their now-permanent homes.

We must continue to adopt and expand our support of those veterans in the justice system through continued research and funding. In addition to Veterans Treatment Courts, police across Texas have worked hard to ensure police respond to veterans in ways that de-escalate, rather than escalate, situations by understanding how some veterans may respond to threatening situations, and by funneling them into Veterans Courts.

This specialized approach to working with veterans may give them a second chance at successfully transitioning to civilian life. 

A system that prioritizes punishment over recovery can offer only short-term solutions. The proper supports and resources can effectively transform not only veterans’ lives, but also change the criminal justice system. It’s time to return the service by giving our veterans the help and support they need, and it starts with expanding Veterans Treatment Courts.

Elisa V. Borah is a research associate in the Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.