Protecting Our Protectors: A Model for Criminal Justice Reform

Ryan Hurt
Ryan Hurt
May 6, 2019 · 7 min read

Criminal justice is one of the few political topics that a majority of America can agree warrants legislative action, according to a recent poll by the Justice Action Network. The poll reveals that nearly three-fourths of Americans believe the country’s criminal justice system needs “significant improvement.” Conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, the poll also indicates that support for reform spans all sides of the political spectrum — with 68 percent of Republicans, 78 percent of Independents, and 80 percent of Democrats supporting reform. Perhaps most notably, the poll found that 85 percent of Americans agree the main goal of our criminal justice system should be rehabilitation, not punishment. There is overarching support for reforming the “tough on crime” era of mass incarceration that sprung out of the 1980’s, but the question now becomes: how can legislators do that? As the Texas Legislature continues to consider policies that aim to improve our state-wide criminal justice statistics, perhaps we need to look no further than the Veteran’s Treatment Court as a model for implementing specialized, treatment-based court programs across the state of Texas. Enacted in 2009 through HB 1048, this court program is designed to provide veterans, who have been committed of a crime, the resources and assistance to get their life back on track. This article attempts to lay out how the Veteran’s Treatment Court program has fared since its enactment one decade ago, and will use this analysis to discuss legislative actions that the Texas Legislature should consider to reduce our state-wide criminal justice expenditures.

To provide some context behind the need for Veteran’s Treatment Courts, the Department of Veteran Affairs has reported that as many as sixty percent of veterans suffer from PTSD, which is attributed not only to traumatic war experiences, but the anger and depression associated with losing friends, restlessness caused by nightmares, and an inability to appropriately respond to stressful situations (Greer). Additionally, veterans commonly struggle with how to process or handle their trauma. According to Travis County’s Veterans Intervention Project survey, drinking and driving leads the way in veteran arrests, with 40 percent of charges falling on veterans under the age of 30. These problems persist when issues such as substance abuse go unaddressed, and neither the abuser nor the community is made better for it. This is precisely why Texas adopted the Veteran’s Treatment Court: to strengthen public safety at a much lower cost than incarceration and to do the right thing for our veterans.

VTCs address the multitude of issues that might bring a veteran to the point of committing a crime. Each veteran is assigned a mentor, who is a fellow veteran, and is required to follow an individualized treatment plan that is imposed by the court, which typically includes heavily restricted drug or alcohol use, regular court appearances, among any other terms and conditions that the case manager may set. If the veteran follows these guidelines for 8–12 months, their charge may be permanently expunged upon completion. Further explanation of Veteran’s Treatment Court can be found in the video below created by TakePart, a non-profit advocacy organization, in 2015.

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=138&v=PrpytvX3YSE

While VTCs were established in Texas through state law, they are implemented at the county level. By looking at consecutive annual Texas crime reports, one can see that counties who have successfully implemented Veteran’s Courts and other specialty court program are largely successful at reducing the rate at which individuals reenter the prison system, also known as the recidivism rate. By taking a look at Figure 1, it becomes clear that the recidivism rate for the 3 most heavily funded Veteran’s Courts (Tarrant, Travis, and Bexar) went down significantly over the 10-year period since its enactment, especially when compared to counties who have not implemented a Veteran’s Treatment Court. Ellis, Lubbock, and Hood county have not embraced this specialty court model due to likely reasons of financial restraint, absence of proper and accurate information, and a lack of resources. This, in effect, suggests that there is a direct correlation between sufficiently funded treatment courts and lower recidivism rates.

Figure 1

Although HB 1048 is a statewide bill, the Criminal Justice Department currently only provides funding to 39 veterans courts, and this funding has remained stagnant since their creation (Borah, Texas Department of Criminal Justice). Starting a Veteran’s Court requires a tremendous amount of money and paperwork to simply qualify for state funding, which has discouraged many counties who lack the proper resources from opting in to the program (Marchman). Because of the bureaucratic roadblocks, high income counties often seek funding through other means, such as large grants or donations. Tarrant, Travis, and Bexar county actively seek funding through the Texas Veteran’s Commission, Lone Star Veterans Association, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, while many of the low to middle income counties are not equipped to do the same, which may explain why those counties were able to reach the level of success they now enjoy. (Borah). Ironically, Texas boasts the second largest veteran population, and one of the largest criminal justice systems in the country (Borah). Yet only 7% of all of our counties currently offer the Veteran’s Treatment Court as an option (Marchman). Whereas incarceration can cost $22,000 annually for each individual that goes through the prison system, specialty courts like the Veteran’s Court cost about $7,000 per individual (Borah). This entails that lower income counties are not only spending three times more on each individual that enters the system, but they also see a higher overall recidivism rate which, in effect, elevates their criminal justice expenditures even higher. By investing in a Veteran’s Court now, each county would see similar levels of recidivism reductions as Tarrant, Travis, and Bexar have over this ten-year period, which easily translates into future financial savings. These specialty courts, like the VTC, not only save the state and taxpayer a lot of money over time, but they are relatively cheap to start with proper state assistance (Marchman). While the amount of funding each county received from outside sources is not public information, it is safe to assume that the more money a county has, the better the VTC.

This research is not to imply that Texas should implement a state-wide Veteran’s Court for all 254 counties immediately. Rather, Texas should consider the success of this treatment-based approach to criminal justice when discussing alternatives to reduce the high cost associated with incarceration. Reflecting on this data makes it strikingly clear that specialty courts like this work to improve all facets of veteran’s lives. A national study of over 22,000 veterans in the VJO program found that VTC participants had better housing and employment outcomes as compared to other criminal justice-involved veterans. Another small study of 86 veterans enrolled in VTCs showed that VTC participants experienced improvements in mental health, overall functioning, and social connectedness over 12 months. Not only is it necessary to reduce our disproportionately high criminal justice expenditures, but these programs significantly transform an individual from a criminal to a high-functioning member of society. In my view, this should be the entire goal of the criminal justice system in the first place.

Generally, Americans hold members of the military in high esteem as a recent poll suggested that 78% of those polled believe that armed service member contribute “a lot” to society’s well-being (Liu). In order to honor these individuals for their contribution, there is vested community interest in providing all Texas veterans the opportunity to achieve the best quality of life possible, not just those in wealthier counties. Expanding state funding and making Veteran’s Courts more accessible to low- & middle-income counties must be enacted if we want this to be a possibility for all Texas veterans. Moreover, the recorded success of Veteran’s Courts with sufficient funds should serve as evidence for embracing rehabilitative criminal justice approaches, and this research suggests it would be wise for the Texas Legislature to embrace VTCs as a model for all future state-wide criminal justice policy reforms.

Works Cited

Borah, Elisa. “Veterans Treatment Courts Prioritize Recovery over Punishment.” HoustonChronicle.com, Houston Chronicle, 15 Mar. 2016, www.houstonchronicle.com/opinion/outlook/article/Borah-Veterans-treatment-courts-prioritize-6891886.php.

Chatfield, Kate. “From Punishment to Rehabilitation: The Evolution of California’s Criminal Justice System — Restore Justice.” Re, 27 Dec. 2018, restorecal.org/californias-criminal-justice-system/.

Greer, Katie. “Supporting Veterans Long After Veterans Day.” Texas Public Policy Foundation. 22 Nov. 2017, https://www.texaspolicy.com/supporting-veterans-long-after-veterans-day/.

Knudsen, Kraig & Wingenfeld, Scott. “A Specialized Treatment Court for Veterans with Trauma Exposure: Implications for the Field.” Community Mental Health Journal. 15 Feb. 2015, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10597-015-9845-9

Liu, Joseph. “Public Esteem for Military Still High.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, 17 Jan. 2019, www.pewforum.org/2013/07/11/public-esteem-for-military-still-high/.

Marchman, Judy. “Veteran’s Courts in Texas.” Texas Bar Journal, Sept. 2012, www.texasbar.com/AM/Template.cfm?Section=Texas_Bar_Journal&Template=/CM/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=19656.

Staff, Vera. “Overwhelming Majority of Americans Support Criminal Justice Reform, New Poll Finds.” Vera Institute of Justice. 25 Jan. 2018, https://www.vera.org/blog/overwhelming-majority-of-americans-support-criminal-justice-reform-new-poll-finds

Texas Department of Criminal Justice. “Statistical Report: 2010 Fiscal Year Report.” 2010, www.tdcj.texas.gov/documents/Statistical_Report_FY2010.pdf.

Texas Department of Criminal Justice. “Statistical Report: 2014 Fiscal Year Report.” 2014, www.tdcj.texas.gov/documents/Statistical_Report_FY2014.pdf.

Texas Department of Criminal Justice. “Statistical Report: 2018 Fiscal Year Report.” 2018, www.tdcj.texas.gov/documents/Statistical_Report_FY2018.pdf.

Tsai, Jack. “A National Study of Veterans Treatment Court Participants: Who Benefits and Who Recidivates.” New York Association of Drug Treatment Court Professionals. 22 Jan. 2019, http://nyadtcp.org/assets/pdfs/handouts/A%20National%20Study%20on%20VTC%20Participants.pdf

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