WACO, Texas (FOX 44) – The McLennan County Veterans Treatment Court is celebrating its third graduating class of veterans since the beginning of the Court on Veterans Day 2019.

The event will take place Wednesday at 3 p.m. at 501 Washington Avenue in Waco. Court is a voluntary treatment program which is structured to address the mental health and/or substance abuse issues of a veteran with criminal charges. It emphasizes treatment, rather than incarceration.

74th District Court Judge Gary Coley, Jr. will be presiding over the Court. Texas Legislature passed a law in 2009 which authorized the creation of veterans’ courts to help veterans whose criminal charges could be connected to their military service.

On Veterans Day 2019, McLennan County started accepting applications for the revolutionary program and started a veterans court which works collaboratively with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and other veteran and community organizations to provide a program to helps veterans “return to the lives they fought to protect,” as stated by the organization Justice for Vets, while reducing recidivism and improving public safety.

The VA in Texas reported that Central Texas veterans courts have a high success rate, which often brings recidivism rates down to single digits.

This program is a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, McLennan County, the McLennan County District Attorney’s Office, McLennan County Community Supervision & Corrections Department, Baylor Law Veterans Clinic and Heart of Texas Behavioral Health Network Veterans One Stop Program. The primary target population is offenders whose military experience and background contributed to the commission of the offense for which they are charged.

McLennan County is excited to have four veterans graduating the program this week – with a total of 19 veterans actively admitted in the program and nine pending approval from their court of jurisdiction.

Seven veterans have already graduated the program. Justice for Vets reported that one in six veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffers from a substance abuse issue and one in five suffers from PTSD. These problems contribute to disruptive and criminal behavior among a substantial number of veterans. An estimated 320,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffer from traumatic brain injury.

Through a combination of structured support, healthcare, and other social service resources provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs, McLennan County expects to see a reduction in criminal behavior and an increase in services received for veterans. Veterans Treatment Court participants receive assistance with VA benefits including mental health treatment, chemical dependency treatment, general healthcare and housing.

When veterans are arrested in McLennan County, they can be referred to veterans court by their
defense attorney, arresting officer or self-refer. Most veterans in the program are arrested for
misdemeanors, which are mainly DWIs, but non-violent felonies are also accepted. Participants of the program don’t have to be combat veterans or reside in the same county that operates the veterans court, but their counties of residence must approve their participation in this specialty court. Veterans must also meet eligibility requirements for the court and their military experience and background contributed to the commission of the offense for which they are charged.

Amy Lowrey, Director of Specialty Courts, then reviews each case to determine if the applicant is acceptable for this court and presents the case to the team for an admission decision. Once a veteran is accepted, individualized treatment plans are created to meet the veteran’s needs as there is no one-size-fits-all program.

Veterans are assessed by the VA or a local mental health professional to determine not only if they need substance abuse and mental health counseling, but to determine if they qualify for disability compensation, a pension, educational benefits, vocational training, housing and medical services. Every veteran must report to court for progress hearings with Judge Coley and the team twice a month the first two-thirds of the program, then once a month until graduation.

Applicants must meet the following criteria:
• At least 18 years of age
• Able to prove Veteran status and be eligible for VA care (copy of DD214)
• Must be approved by the District Attorney’s office
• Must have charges in, and work or reside in McLennan Co., some exceptions may be made for
those residing in an adjacent county
• Should not have holds or warrants from other jurisdictions or have other criminal cases pending
• Must be physically and mentally capable of participating in the program
• Willing to participate in the conditions of the court

The VTC program is supported in part by a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance. McLennan County has been awarded a 48-month $750,000 grant from the Office of Justice Programs to enhance the Veterans Treatment Court program and the services it provides.

For more information, you can visit www.co.mclennan.tx.us/1094/Specialty-Courts or call 254-759-7557.