Civil legal services for veterans and their families have been receiving positive attention lately, and for good reason.
This year, the Texas legislature dedicated $3 million to the cause. This week, the Texas Access to Justice Foundation (TAJF) is coordinating a campaign to get the word out about events such as legal advice clinics in approximately 25 cities which offer these services for free.
This is terrific news, but this alone won’t solve all the legal needs of veterans in our communities. For example, these funds don’t address criminal legal needs. Veteran Treatment Courts (VTCs) help those who have been arrested to receive treatment and counseling for underlying mental health issues in lieu of routine criminal sentences. While VTCs are growing in number in Texas and additional funds have been allocated for their creation, they are noticeably absent from much of rural and West Texas.
As part of my job, I advocate for the creation of VTCs. I approach county officials and judges with information compiled from existing veterans courts in our state. The research shows that local programs benefit well-deserving veterans, help reduce crime, and relieve pressure on overburdened criminal justice systems. Despite the recognized success and spread of Veterans Treatment Courts along the I-35 corridor, officials in more rural areas sometimes believe there aren’t enough veterans to justify a program or that they can’t secure funding because of smaller populations.
This means that veterans outside of population centers do not have access to the same benefits and resources as big city-dwellers. Veteran’s Day this week is a good opportunity to reflect on how we can ensure veterans are treated the same, whether they reside in San Antonio or San Angelo. It shouldn’t matter if a county has a veteran population of 200,000 or 20,000.
In my experience, a judge can make all the difference. A judge committed to starting a veterans court is invaluable in helping convince others, such as the prosecutor and the county commissioners, to support such a court. In counties without these programs, constituents should contact their county court and district court judges, asking them to create the framework. They should write to elected officials to let them know it is a priority. It requires a team of people to spend time to plan a veterans court. Many counties already have the treatment options through the local VA healthcare system and mental health authority. A veterans court would help coordinate them.
As for civil legal services, we need to attract more volunteer attorneys and we need veterans to keep showing up, if we’re going to keep any newly-allocated resources. Veterans and their loved ones should connect local Military Partners Coalitions and other advocacy groups like our office to stay informed about local clinics and events.
We attorneys need to show that we can be counted on for more than banking billable hours. Texas attorneys, in fact, donate 2 million hours of pro bono work annually. With nearly 85,000 lawyers in the state, we could double that number if we all met the goal of 50 pro bono hours per year. What greater pro bono service could we offer the community than help our veterans?
Let’s all work together. Attorneys should show up to volunteer in record numbers; veterans should trust that we’re there to help; and counties should to commit to starting veterans courts in every possible jurisdiction.