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Collin County creates veterans' court
Collin County veterans who find themselves on the wrong side of the law may soon have another option rather than standing trial in a traditional criminal court.
On Monday, the commissioners court approved the formation of the Collin County Veterans' Court. The court was formed at the request of John Roach, Jr., a Marine veteran and the judge of the 296th District Court.
The court will allow specific veterans who committed crimes to avoid jail time by entering into a special probationary period, which Roach called "probation on steroids." During that period they will have to report to a probation officer and also check in with Roach twice a month. If they obey the terms of their probation, the charges will be wiped off their record.
"Oftentimes veterans have a difficult time reintegrating into civilian society after their tours of duty in far-off lands for the freedoms that we so much enjoy," Roach told the commissioners court. "Sometimes they run into instances either because of a substance abuse problem or a mental illness such as PTSD or a traumatic brain injury. ... So the question is: What do we do in the criminal justice system when we are dealing with these veterans who have given so much for us?"
Roach said Collin County is the largest county in the state without a veterans' court. He said the court will not cost the county any money since it will be paid for with court filing fees, which will likely be assessed on a sliding scale.
"We have made a sliding scale to ensure that cost in and of itself does not prohibit that veteran from getting the benefit of this veteran treatment court," Roach said.
County Judge Keith Self, a West Point graduate, said he believes the court will be helpful and allow veterans who honorably served their country to have an option of undergoing intensive monitoring rather than face jail time.
Another supporter of the new court is H. Ownby, a Plano-based attorney and former Collin County District Attorney in the mid 1980s. Ownby is also on the national executive committee for the American Legion.
"Most of the criminals that we put away are sent off to a school for criminals," Ownby said. "My experience with veterans is that when they get legal help and get focused into what can be done for them through the VA and the other things that are in place, is that this becomes a school for curing, not another school for crime."
There is no official estimation of how many veterans will be served by the newly created court, but Roach said he anticipates there being five to 15 at any one time. He said even though there are 70,000 veterans in the county, not just anyone will be eligible for the court.
"You have to have a combat-related injury that has some correlation between that injury and the related offense," he told the court.
One of the keys to having a successful court will be a complete vetting process to ensure that the veterans are who they say they are, said B.G. Burkett, author of the book Stolen Valor and an expert on the subject of veteran fraud.
"There are certainly people who are down on their luck and have PTSD, but the courts are good if there is somebody verifying the veteran's story," Burkett said, adding that he has seen many cases where people lie about their service in order to receive leniency from the court or government benefits.
Roach told the commissioners he was confident the county would be able to properly vet their cases that come before the court. In the end, Roach said county should see benefits from the court.
"I believe this is an important step in the direction for veterans here in Collin County," he said. "I am willing to take on the opportunity, as has the district attorney and other people throughout the county, to ensure the system runs effectively with accountability so we can give back to these veterans and allow them the opportunity to have their civilian record match their service record."