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Groups aims to help veterans navigate the legal system

Tuesday, November 10, 2009 by Josh Rosenblatt

With more American soldiers coming home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, helping veterans transition back to civilian life continues to be a pressing concern for law enforcement and social service agencies across the country.


According to a study in the Journal of Internal Medicine, as many as 25-30 percent of veterans returning from wars suffer from mental illness, often resulting in higher-than-average levels of substance abuse, homelessness, domestic violence, and criminal behavior.


For one local law enforcement agent, the issue of veteran trauma is a personal one. According to Maria Canchola, the constable of Travis County Precinct 4, her significant other of 26 years returned home traumatized from fighting in Vietnam but didn’t get treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a condition she says wreaked havoc on his mental state for nearly 30 years.


“Had he gotten treatment when he got back,” Canchola told In Fact Daily, “he would have been a whole lot better. Doctors now say that PTSD is manageable if it’s treated quickly, but Vietnam veterans didn’t have that opportunity. We’re learning on the backs of Vietnam vets.”


In November 2007, Canchola started to document local examples of national trends concerning the difficulties veterans face upon returning to civilian life, focusing on the criminal justice system. She learned that in Travis County a significant number of veterans are arrested and booked in county jails every month and that many of those arrested are repeat offenders with substance abuse and/or mental health problems. She also realized that many of these veterans were not taking advantage of Veterans Administration (VA) services that may have helped them avoid incarceration, addiction, and recidivism.


So in early 2008 she assembled a group called the Veterans Intervention Project (VIP), a collection of representatives from various local, state, and federal agencies and veterans-aid groups, to assess the challenges facing veterans and recommend improvements.


“When I started out doing this,” Canchola said, “I wanted to keep others from meeting the same fate as my significant other, to help them get treatment, and to keep them from criminalizing their history.”


VIP’s first task was to do a survey of veterans who were arrested and booked into the Travis County jail. According to the survey, which was conducted over a 90-day period, from September 1 to November 30, 2008, and was completed this past September, the average number of veterans arrested and booked into jail each month was 153 during that period, or about 3.4 percent of the overall arrested and booked population.


As for recidivism, 32 percent of all veteran respondents were arrested two or more times during the 90-day survey. And as for substance abuse issues, 34 percent of all charges filed against veterans during the survey period were for DWI, possession, delivery, public intoxication, and vehicular manslaughter.


Travis County Precinct 5 Constable and VIP Co-Chair Bruce Elfant says many of these problems are a result of those involved not realizing they have a problem. “A lot of times with these arrested veterans,” Elfant told In Fact Daily, “they don’t know they have a substance abuse problem, or PTSD, or a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI); they just know they got arrested or got drunk or got high.”


For both Canchola and Elfant, the first step to helping returning veterans transition back to civilian life, and avoid crime and prison, is making them aware of services available to them through the VA. According to the report, 74 percent of the arrested veterans surveyed were eligible for VA services, but only 35 percent reported that they had taken advantage of them: “A majority of arrested veterans surveyed have not obtained VA or other services – services that can help support reintegration, intervene in substance abuse and mental health issues, and prevent repeated arrests.”    


As such, the first priority of VIP is making returning veterans aware of their eligibility to take advantage of VA services. According to the report, “VIP members are currently reviewing best practice programs around the nation, working to establish formal agency links, and creatively using resources to pilot some programs” in an effort to, as Elfant said, “create linkage between the criminal justice system and the Veterans Administration” through the institution of veterans workshops and the production of comprehensive brochures that will be made available at entities that work with veterans.


In other words, Elfant said, the best way to start helping veterans is to let them know what services are available to them.


In addition to providing direct aid and information for veterans, VIP is in the process of coordinating efforts between the Travis County criminal justice system and the VA to help veterans navigate the legal system so they can avoid jail time and decrease their chances for recidivism.


Their first goal is to create a pilot project that would allow Travis County Pretrial Services to grant personal bond release to arrested veterans on the condition that they be assessed by VA personnel for PTSD, other mental-health conditions, or addictions. In this way, the group believes, veterans would be able to get into treatment rather than ending up in jail.


Though she doesn’t know if such a program is possible, Canchola believes that getting veterans released on personal bond is the best way to ensure more of them getting the treatment they need. She says the local VA’s recent hiring of a justice coordinator is an indication that they feel the same.


The other program VIP is looking into is a Veterans Docket/Court, whereby misdemeanor cases involving veterans would go to separate dockets and courts and therefore could be heard and resolved more effectively. According to the group’s literature, several jurisdictions throughout the country have established such a system and have been effective in decreasing recidivism rates among veterans. A subcommittee of VIP that includes judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, veterans’ advocates, and faculty members of the UT law school is currently assessing the advantages of establishing such a system in Travis County.


For Elfant, the value of the veterans court/docket is clear. “It’s better we identify these veterans after their first crimes,” he said, “than after their fifth or their twentieth, when someone could get killed. We want to help these veterans before misdemeanors become felonies.”

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