Bell County courts

For many veterans who come back after serving overseas, reintegration can be difficult and bad decisions can be made as a result.

Helping these veterans and active duty military members move toward reintegration with society after they have made these mistakes is the goal of Bell County’s Veterans Treatment Court.

The program, which has been in operation locally since 2015, works with veterans who have committed mostly misdemeanor crimes as a result of issues arising from their service. The court then works with individuals over the course of at least a year in order for them to straighten out their lives, with a majority of related charges being dismissed.

Court at Law 3 Judge Rebecca DePew said she knows the difficulty these veterans face coming back, having to readjust to a completely different mindset, and knows some just need a chance to change.

“Our combat veterans, on average … have at least been overseas for three tours,” DePew said. “Statistically speaking, it has been documented that each time you are sent off on a mission overseas, when you come back PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and other disorders rise exponentially due to that combat and what they are seeing over there.”

DePew said the county’s program has had 149 graduates over the past five years, treating between 60 and 100 at a time, with only 21 reoffending.

The Veterans Treatment Court is different from the county’s normal courts, with participants having to request entry into the program. After applying, veterans need to show they are eligible for the program and receive approval from the district or county attorney before they can be considered.

Katherine Martin, director of specialty courts and social work, said those who have reoffended after having once been a part of the program are barred from rejoining and go through the normal court system.

Some of the main crimes that lead veterans to the courts include driving under the influence, drug charges and domestic disputes.

For those crimes that have a victim, such as domestic disputes, Martin said the court first seeks the victim’s approval before allowing the veteran into the program.

Martin said something she hears a lot from those participants is that being a part of the court “is the best worst thing that has ever happened to them.”

“We are looking for something more than medication, to get them plugged in and working on any traumas,” Martin said. “One big thing that we find with these individuals is that reintegration into the civilian world is just not kind whatsoever. You have that combat trauma, but a lot of them have lost their purpose or their sense of identity, and they have to fit back into the civilian world where they have to fit in this certain box where they have been trained outside of.”

Treating each veteran in the program is different, Martin said. Treatment plans are created on a patient-by-patient basis, with changes customized to suit that individual.

These treatment programs can include randomized drug testing, psychiatric care for mental issues and a variety of intervention programs. Veterans also are required to appear in court monthly — which are taking place over Zoom video conferencing during the coronavirus pandemic — to talk to the judge and give her an update on their situation.

DePew said that while she is able to enforce penalties for breaking the terms of the program, the court also includes a defense attorney because she feels having that representation for these individuals is required.

“My firm belief is they always have to feel that they have a choice and that they are part of the process,” DePew said. “There is a due-process element to all of this as we go along because there can be instances where they are just absolutely not getting with the program. We issue what are called sanctions, and ultimately, they can be as simple as you are going to get urine analysis a lot more, see me a lot more or sometimes write a book report.”

Martin said that even after veterans graduate the program, the court keeps track of them for the next six months and checks in on them so they are not just abandoned.

The treatment court also features a mentorship program that pairs those in the program with fellow veterans who will help them make the changes needed.

The court partners with local organizations — such as Killeen nonprofit Bring Everyone in the Zone — to pair members with the veterans.

Maureen Jouett, chief executive officer of the organization, said she has seen real change from those involved with the program.

“If people follow the program, it is like a second chance,” Jouett said. “It really is a beneficial thing for them, and I wish more people would take advantage of it. Because all they have to do is ask the prosecutor to consider them for the veteran treatment court and get on the docket for that.”

Moving forward, both DePew and Martin said they hope the program is able to expand and help more veterans since they are forced to turn some away due to space.

As part of this expansion, the county has applied for a $30,000 grant from the Texas Veterans Commission Fund to expand the number of staff and capabilities of the program.

Martin said a new position will be added for a post-adjudicated committee enforcement officer that will spend 50 percent of their time helping with the court. The money also will go toward the use of an application for participants which will remind them of appointments and scheduled tests.

DePew said it is important for her, heading this special court, to give those who are willing to change that chance.

“For us, as a team, it is just phenomenal to see these individuals who seem so lost to find their purpose again and to see that drive and engagement again in their community,” she said.