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Separate court for veterans plans to include felony cases

Published: Mar. 25, 2016 at 2:24 AM CDT|Updated: Mar. 25, 2016 at 2:36 AM CDT
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Smith Co. Veterans Service Officer explains the effects of PTSD to county department heads....
Smith Co. Veterans Service Officer explains the effects of PTSD to county department heads. (Source: KLTV staff)

SMITH COUNTY, TX (KLTV) - The only veterans treatment court in East Texas is planning to expand their caseload to include felonies.

Smith County began operating the specialty criminal court for veterans last year, according to Veterans Service Officer Michael Roark. Roark says after completion of the program, veterans could qualify for getting the criminal charges erased from their record.

"They volunteered for the military and go into combat, and it's felt that it'd be better for them and for society as a whole," said Roark, "to have a separate court for them where they get the treatment that they need that they might not otherwise get."

During a presentation to the Smith County Criminal Justice Committee on Thursday, Roark explained to department heads that his research of Montgomery County's veterans court has seen high completion numbers and low recidivism.

"This program isn't a get-out-of-jail free card," Roark said. "We hold them to a higher standard, what we in effect do is try to take them back into the military, mentally."

Each defendant gets a tailored program in place of a sentence which can include treatment, counseling, community service.

Currently, the veterans court under Judge Randall Rogers, only hears misdemeanor cases.  Now Roark said with the success of the court's first year, he expects the expansion to include felonies to reduce the rate at which veterans may re-offend.

Roark said the following felonies are excluded: homicide; murder; sexual assault; a crime involving the injury of a child, elderly, or disabled; sale of illegal drugs or narcotics.   A person qualifying for veterans court also cannot have a prior conviction of one of the listed felonies.

In order to qualify, the person must be an:

  • honorably discharged veteran;
  • who has been diagnosed with or exhibits symptoms of 
    • post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),
    • traumatic brain injury (TBI), 
    • or any other mental illness caused by service in a combat zone or hazardous duty position.

There also has to be a connection between the diagnosis and the crime they committed.

"An example is a veteran with PTSD self-medicating with alcohol or narcotics and either gets caught in possession of narcotics or he gets a DWI," Roark said.

Smith County Criminal Justice Coordinator Gary Pinkerton hopes the word will get out about the resources available to veterans.

"Our veterans sometimes find themselves on the wrong side of the justice system. So, it order to have a court that meets their needs, Smith Co. is being proactive," Pinkerton said. "There are services here if they seek them."

Incidents involving veterans are not automatically turned over to the veterans court.  The person charged must request their case be reviewed by the veterans service office.  Roark said he is working toward being able to be notified when a veteran is arrested or charged.

In some instances, a veteran with pending charges that did not go through veterans court, may still apply for the program.

For more information, contact the Smith County Veterans Service Office at (903) 590-2950.  210 E. Ferguson
Tyler, Texas 75702

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