Special Dallas court to help troubled vets

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by CHRISTY HOPPE / The Dallas Morning News

wfaa.com

Posted on March 30, 2010 at 9:41 PM

Updated Tuesday, Mar 30 at 9:42 PM

AUSTIN — Soldiers who survive combat only to fall into addiction, depression, rage - and, sometimes, criminal behavior - will have their own court in Dallas County, starting next month.

State District Judge Mike Snipes of Dallas attended training in Austin today to handle a new docket devoted to veterans.

If he can, he’s going to get them into a Veterans Administration bed instead of a prison bed.

“The veterans have unique problems that come from their service - not only in Iraq and Afghanistan. There’s still some from Vietnam,” Snipes said.

“We’re seeing more and more examples of people coming out of there with post-traumatic stress disorder, unique mental difficulties that have to do with combat-related issues.”

Snipes, who will add the docket to his other duties, said he hopes to get the first slate of five to 10 veterans' cases started in April.

The program will include consultations with mental health case workers, counseling, and restitution. Defendants who complete the work could get their criminal record expunged.

Assistant District Attorney Craig McNeil also has volunteered to take on the extra docket.

“If the reason someone offends is because they have underlying issues - post-traumatic stress or related drug or alcohol addiction – we want to try and treat that,” McNeil said. “We want to give people the opportunity to correct an issue that’s not really their fault.”

Both Snipes and McNeil served as Army Reserve officers in Iraq, and in some ways, they said, they're still trying to cover the backs of their fellow soldiers.

Last year, lawmakers gave counties the authority to create specialized courts to give veterans a chance to get therapy instead of jail time. Part of their argument was that diversion programs have better success and are cheaper than incarceration.

“It provides a mechanism where they can get back on track and not be tagged with a conviction,” said state Rep. Allen Vaught, D-Dallas, who co-authored the legislation.

Harris County began a veterans court in Houston in December and has processed 20 cases, almost all dealing with addiction-related problems, said state District Judge Marc Carter.

Under the old system, all those offenders would have been put out the street, under probation and with a criminal record, Carter said. Now, they have the opportunity get help and get their lives back, he said.

Funding for the specialized dockets is being sought from VA grants and a special veterans lottery scratch-off ticket.

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