By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The judge saves his highest praise for Melendez.
"You're probably our No. 1 success story," Snipes says.
Melendez has been testing negative for drugs since entering the program. He's found temporary bathroom and floor remodeling work and maintains a steady residence. But even though Snipes must approve each candidate for the court along with the District Attorney's Office, he doesn't know what mental issue allowed Melendez to make the cut and is undaunted when told that Melendez doesn't know either. "These guys are not [very bright], so that doesn't surprise me that he couldn't articulate what it is," Snipes says in an interview.
And when asked about the two felonies that will be permanently erased from Melendez's record if he successfully completes the program on November 15, Snipes says, "I can't tell you off the top of my head what he's got."
While Snipes may lack background knowledge about his small group of veterans—only four are officially in the program, with a handful of others on hand weekly awaiting assessments or receiving treatment—his patience and compassion are hard to miss. And he claims to know how to best go about weeding out the bad apples.
"I know a bullshitter and a maligner when I see one," he says.
When Judge Snipes agreed to accept Melendez into the program on May 11, Dallas joined Harris and Tarrant as the third Texas county to take advantage of last year's legislation. The law hands over broad power to judges and district attorneys when selecting program participants, allowing them to choose any veteran or active member of the U.S. armed forces, reserves, national or state guard accused of a misdemeanor or felony and with a proper diagnosis of a service-related mental illness or injury.
While that loose language allows for possible murderers and rapists to be accepted, Snipes and Assistant District Attorney Craig McNeil—both veterans themselves—say only offenders most likely to be considered for probation in a regular criminal court will be considered. In fact, they've agreed not to allow veterans charged with driving while intoxicated into the program, as opposed to Tarrant County, which has a few of its 14 program members charged with DWI and met some initial opposition from Mothers Against Drunk Driving when its court opened April 7.
Tarrant County Criminal Court Judge Brent Carr credits MADD for taking "a wait-and-see attitude" after expressing its concern and says his court now must pick the right candidates to show recovery and prove they're no longer a risk to society. "Otherwise, we will be subject to their condemnation, and rightfully so."
The program also met resistance in Bexar County when District Attorney Susan Reed initially pushed back against the legislation because of her policy against granting adults pretrial diversion—the act of releasing a first-time offender from jail, placing him on probation before trial and then dismissing his charges when he's successfully met conditions set by the court.
Bexar County First Assistant District Attorney Cliff Herberg says Reed changed her mind when it became clear that a grant from the governor's Criminal Justice Division was contingent on her support of the pretrial diversion component of the legislation. A veterans court is set to launch this month in San Antonio, a town known as Military City, USA, thanks to its large number of bases and retired veterans.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada and the ACLU of Colorado objected to veterans court legislation in those states, arguing that it's unfair to give preferential treatment based on military status, but ACLU of Texas spokesman Jose Medina says his group took no position on the Texas bill, which the Legislature passed unanimously.
Dallas, Tarrant and Bexar counties envision their programs to hold a maximum of around 20 veterans at any given time and modeled their courts after the state's first, which opened in Harris County last December. Still, each county has developed its own program differently. For example, Bexar County won't consider offenses higher than misdemeanors, and if a victim is involved, the victim's consent is required before an offender can be accepted.
One component Snipes felt necessary to copy from Harris County was its requirement that veterans be honorably discharged, which is not required by the legislation nor by Tarrant or Bexar counties. Dallas has applied for two grants to subsidize the program, but in the meantime, Snipes says it's running with "bubble gum and duct tape." With the county not providing funding, Snipes, the prosecutor, the probation officer, the mentors and anyone else involved provide the services on top of their normal workloads.
With no grant money on hand from the state and no county support for treatment programs, ensuring that each defendant gets full access to medical benefits from the VA is vital. Because the VA can take months to perform mental health assessments required by defendants to qualify for the court, Dallas County is eagerly awaiting word on its grant applications—one totaling approximately $70,000 with the governor's Criminal Justice Division and another of $40,000 with the Texas Veterans Commission—to broaden its program. The funds will be used to hire a full-time forensic mental health worker to handle the assessments, along with a full-time probation officer. Dave Wakefield, manager of nine of the county's 14 specialty courts, says the only funds received thus far are a $15,000 grant from the Texas Bar Foundation.