New court aims to keep veterans out of criminal justice system
Monday, April 3, 2017
Posted by: Desiree van der Kleij
ANGLETON — Travis Hodges unwittingly became Brazoria County’s face of post-traumatic stress disorder when he returned from his second combat tour, candidly recounting the sounds of rockets and roadside bombs still echoing in his mind.
“I have seen enough death and destruction for a 23-year-old,” the former Marine corporal told The Facts in July 2010.
Now 29, the battlefield memories that often jolted him awake after his return home haven’t left Hodges. His father died shortly after the Angleton High School graduate retuned from Afghanistan, prompting Hodges to self-medicate with Vicodin as he struggled to adjust back to civilian life.
“Outside, I felt I had no support team. No one understood me,” Hodges said. “Using was the only way I knew how to cope.”
Hodges’ substance abuse snowballed from there, leading to a divorce and a three-month stint in the Brazoria County jail on theft charges.
“I went from being a hero to this,” Hodges said.
Prosecutors often are faced with two options for veterans such as Hodges who end up in the criminal justice system — probation or prison, 149th District Judge Terri Holder said.
Dissatisfied with those choices, Holder decided to start a court specifically aimed at helping veterans navigate the psychological minefield a service member may experience after leaving a war zone. She immediately drove to Houston to see Harris County’s veterans court in action.
“If we address that and keep them on track, these guys aren’t coming back to the criminal justice system,” Holder said.
With the help of a steering committee that included prosecutor Courtney Gilbert, defense attorney Terence Norman, the county’s community supervision office and the Gulf Coast Center in Galveston, Holder adopted a model of the veterans court that started six years ago in Buffalo, N.Y., and recently spread to Texas.
“There are statistics showing specialty courts that address a specific problem have better results as far as recidivism,” Holder said. “The model addresses not only the substance-abuse issues that many of them have, but the mental health aspect that comes with their service. It’s not just substance abuse — there’s a reason behind it.”
Holder kicked off a pilot program last spring before the program received a grant from Gov. Greg Abbott’s criminal justice division in September, she said. Eight veterans are currently enrolled in the program, and it has the capacity for 40.
“There are a lot of layers to it as far as people working together and making it happen and making it work right,” Holder said. “Just like any special court, it’s going to be beneficial for anybody who takes advantage of it. It’s one of those things where we’ll continue and keep learning.”
HOW IT WORKS
Veterans find their way to the 14-month program through referrals from defense attorneys, probation officers or even the local Veterans Affairs office, Holder said. Veterans are eligible if they live in Brazoria County or an adjoining county; suffer from a brain injury, mental illness or sexual trauma stemming from their military service; and have been charged with a criminal defense in the county, according to the participants’ handbook.
Veterans are not eligible if they have been charged with a sex crime or manufacturing or delivering a controlled substance such as cocaine and methamphetamine or dangerous drug, which includes prescriptions like Xanax.
The first phase — appropriately named “Hope” — is arguably the most intensive, Holder said. Veterans must attend two court hearings a month and meet with their case manager weekly, in addition to developing a timeline for treatment plans and creating a weekly schedule and personal budget.
“Some of this is real simple, like long-term goals,” Holder said. “But they’re things somebody needs to say.”
The second phase, “Courage,” revolves around finding and maintaining stable employment and housing as well as beginning any ordered community service hours. By “Strength,” the third phase, veterans are attending monthly court hearings and meeting with their case manager every two weeks, rather than weekly.
Once participants reach the final phase, “Commitment,” they must present Holder with written plans to maintain sobriety after the program and attend orientation for a volunteer Military Veteran Peer Network.
The participant has to submit an application for court approval before leveling up to the next phase, Holder said.
“A regular probation court would not have the resources nor the time to do this,” she said.
Much like with children, it takes a village to help a community’s veterans, and Holder said that community is doing more than its part.
“I think the program works largely because of the camaraderie it provides,” she said. “That’s a huge component that the other special courts don’t have.”
Before court Tuesday, BASF Project Manager Kailee Fujimoto reviewed a stack of the veterans’ resumes, pointing out potential improvements. Fujimoto is part of a group of employees from the petrochemical company who have volunteered to mentor and guide the court’s participants.
“Don’t fall into the pitfall of telling people what you do and not how you do it,” Fujimoto said. “Most companies really want to know how you get to the result.”
Heather Melton, veteran volunteer coordinator for the Gulf Coast Center in Galveston, pairs up court participants with a mentor through the Military Veteran Peer Network. Mentors always are fellow veterans, typically from the same branch as the person they’re mentoring, Melton said.
“A lot of the time it’s veterans who have that ‘been there, done that’ experience, whether they have PTSD and are recovering or gone through substance abuse and overcome it,” she said. “Court itself can go against the grain of the treatment process — it’s supposed to be healthy but sometimes it can be a bit daunting and may make them want to use. Having another veteran by your side that you can call or text, even in the middle of the night, is really beneficial for someone who is going through that.”
Any veteran interested in mentoring can learn more at gulfcoastcenter.org or www.milvetpeer.net.
Holder is all business as she strides to the bench in her courtroom at the Brazoria County Courthouse, shuffling her notes and scanning the crowd. However, the moment she takes her seat, the judge’s demeanor relaxes.
“I had such an excellent report that we put all your names in a bottle,” Holder said, looking over the top of her glasses at the handful of people gathered in the gallery. “We’re going to draw, and the winner gets a $25 gift card to Texas Roadhouse.”
Dressed in slacks and a button-down shirt, Hodges tells Holder he recently completed a three-month stint at an Angleton drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility. He has moved to Alvin and is working on a house on his grandfather’s property.
Holder smiles at Hodges as she tells him it’s time to submit his application for the second phase of the program.
“The first phase is where we get everything stable,” she said. “I feel like you’re there.”
Without the veterans court and the support system it brought with it, Hodges still would be in the throes of addiction and PTSD, he said. Instead, he has been clean for eight months with no intention of breaking that streak.
“I haven’t thought of picking one up. Without this place, I would have never gone to rehab,” Hodges said. “This is what I’m talking about with seeing support. Having other people knowing what I’m going through keeps me sober.”
Holder hopes other veterans find the same fellowship Hodges has in the veterans court as the fledgling program gains momentum.
“The whole thing is to give these guys some hope and let them know they’re not lost,” she said. “They’ve done a service for us and we’re trying to make sure they know it’s appreciated and it’s addressed to try to get them back whole, where they feel like they can move forward.”
Erinn Callahan is a reporter for The Facts. Contact her at 979-237-0150. Click here for the article at The Facts.