A court system will be available to eligible Hays County residents beginning this spring in an effort to reduce recidivism among those who have served in the military.
The specialized court will hear misdemeanor offense cases that involve men and women who have formerly served in the military. Vets who are first-time offenders and are identified as needing help will be able to receive assistance and supervision for the issues they are facing for up to two years.
The court was formed following of a recommendation from the Hays County Veteran Task Force, which has the goal of improving veteran services. The Hays County Commissioners Court applied for grants for the Veterans Court program in June 2013.
County officials are “gearing up” for the court to hear these cases and will begin rulings soon, said Hays County Commissioner Debbie Gonzales Ingalsbe, Precinct 1. The system will be set up to use one of the county courts at law, said Laureen Chernow, Hays County spokesperson.
Jude Prather, Hays County veteran services officer and city councilman, helped design the court to provide veterans with “long-term recovery and community reintegration,” Ingalsbe said. Veterans will be sentenced to probation “tailor-made” to get their lives back on track.
“This is not a ‘get out of jail free’ card,” Prather said.
The court will give veterans the opportunity to be successful, Ingalsbe said.
Judge Linda Rodriguez volunteered to administer the Veterans Court.
“There were several veterans who were incarcerated in our jail, and that brought to our attention the need for this sort of program to help them,” Chernow said.
Veterans must meet one of three requirements to be eligible for their case to be heard by the specialized court.
Veterans who were honorably discharged or given a general discharge and those whoa are diagnosed with a mental illness, traumatic brain injury or substance abuse issues as a result of military service eligible. Veterans facing misdemeanor charges and residing in Hays County or an adjacent county will also meet the criteria, Ingalsbe said.
“Our servicemen and women just give so much to defend us to make sure that we have those freedoms that we all enjoy,” Ingalsbe said. “(The Veterans Court) is a way to give back to those who come back who are struggling, who just need a little bit of help.”
The court will also help eligible veterans receive benefits, Prather said. Counties across Texas provide veterans courts for their men and women, which prevents them from being arrested.
“We need to make sure we’re addressing the underlying problems to keep them out of jail,” Prather said.
Hays County has always been very “veteran-conscious,” and many former servicemen and women live in the area or attend Texas State, Chernow said.
“We watch each other’s backs while in combat,” Prather said. “We need to watch each other’s backs while we’re here.”