Veterans Court seeing success with “treatment, not conviction” mission, despite lack of local hospital

Veterans Court seeing success with “treatment, not conviction” mission, despite lack of local hospital

POSTED: Wednesday, August 13, 2014 - 8:11am

UPDATED: Wednesday, August 13, 2014 - 3:11pm

The El Paso Veterans Court, an alternative criminal justice program that offers veterans the opportunity to undergo substance abuse and mental health treatment instead of being processed by the traditional court system, is applauding the “exemplary success” of their first program graduate.

“He did well in everything that he did [during treatment],” said District Court Judge Angie Juarez Barill, who watched as the program’s first participant “turn his life around.”

“He was working, he was in school, he was being treated… and in our last phase, he was also serving as a mentor for someone else coming in to the program.”

The Veterans Court was funded by a grant from the Texas Veterans Commission Fund for Veterans’ Assistance and launched in 2009 as the second program of its kind in the state. There are now 12 in Texas and dozens across the nation.

Successful completion of individualized treatment programs – which generally run for 18 months and encompass five different phases – can replace jail or prison time and result in the omission of felony charges on criminal records.

According to Silvia Serna, the director of the El Paso Veterans Court Program, countless veterans are arrested for drug-related offenses and other crimes that can be attributed to trauma, depression and disorientation caused by war.

Rather than treating them like typical defendants, the Veterans Court offers treatment and judicial monitoring to “afford them the tools needed to lead a productive and law-abiding life.”

Bureau of Justice Statistics data reveals recidivism rates among graduates of similar programs nationwide are about 2-3 percent compared to 12 percent for criminals processed by traditional drug courts.

Albert Riley, an El Paso resident who served in Vietnam and faced a variety of challenges as he transitioned to life after war, said he “wished there was a program like this” when he came home in the 1960s.

“No parades, no one at the airport to meet me [and] no place to go,” said Riley.

“It was just, ‘Get off the plane and go home.’”

He watched as dozens of his fellow veterans struggled with alcoholism, drug abuse and suicidal thoughts.

“Some of us were lucky and were able to find our way, but these younger [veterans] right now should be grateful for all these opportunities.”

However, many obstacles lie ahead for the El Paso Veterans Program because of insufficient local medical resources according to Serna and Barill.

“What we really need right now is a hospital in El Paso,” Serna told NewsChannel 9.

Veterans who need extensive treatment or intensive counseling are often sent to hospitals in other states. According to Serna, this can prolong treatment time and spark feelings of isolation or loneliness that exacerbate certain mental health conditions.

“It’s really sad because we tell them, ‘We’re going to get you back with your family, we’re going to help you,’ yet we have to send them away,” said Serna.

“We do our best to reach out with cards and support and motivation, but it’s just not the same when they’re in a new place without their friends and family around.”

Serna said the Veterans Court is now relying on government grant money to make more treatment options available in the El Paso area, allowing them to “better serve the people who served us.”

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