Longform

Running on "bubble gum and duct tape," a new court aims to keep damaged vets out of jail.

If Carlos Melendez has mental problems, that's news to him. Sitting on a wooden bench outside State District Judge Mike Snipes' courtroom, the 20-year Air Force veteran can't explain why exactly he was accepted as an inaugural member of Dallas County's veterans court—the latest so-called "specialty" court aimed at preventing recidivism and relieving pressure on crowded jails.

Much like Dallas' 13 other specialty courts, the veterans court carefully monitors and provides low-level offenders access to medical and substance abuse treatment. In Melendez's case, if he completes the court's six-month program successfully—attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings, stays sober, maintains a home, looks for work—his criminal record will be destroyed.

It's not as though Melendez couldn't use a helping hand or a second chance. The 60-year-old recovering drug addict is on the verge of bankruptcy and faces two felony charges after two arrests in April for possessing 1.1 grams of methamphetamine and manufacturing and delivering another 12.1 grams. But to have qualified for the court, Melendez must suffer from "a brain injury, mental illness, or mental disorder, including post-traumatic stress disorder" resulting from military service in a combat zone or "other similar hazardous duty area," according to the 2009 law that allowed the creation of veterans courts statewide.

Melendez says he wasn't given the results of his mental health assessment from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which also must determine that any brain injury or illness stemming from his service "materially affected" his criminal conduct to lawfully secure his eligibility.

Melendez enlisted in the Air Force in 1970, and he never saw combat in Vietnam, instead spending 14 years in Germany, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands before retiring in 1990 in Colorado. He says he never suffered any major injuries or trauma, but because his medical records aren't public record, the explanation for how he met the court's criteria remains a mystery—at least to him.

"The only thing I can think of is it's my past alcoholism," guesses Melendez, a recovering alcoholic since 1994.

Melendez's case may seem an odd one to fall under the special court's jurisdiction, but it's likely there will be plenty of other veterans whose qualifications are not so hard to pin down. As the number of soldiers returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental illnesses rises, veterans courts have spread quickly into 43 cities across the country from New York to Hawaii and states in between since a Buffalo city judge opened the first court in January 2008. A whopping 28 percent (more than 140,000) of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans receiving treatment from the VA are PTSD patients as of March of this year, according to Veterans for Common Sense. A 2008 study by the RAND Corporation's Center for Military Health Policy Research estimated that approximately 20 percent (300,000) of the soldiers returning from the two wars suffered from PTSD or major depression, and of the 53 percent who sought treatment, just over half received "minimally adequate treatment."

These untreated veterans often turn to alcohol and illegal drugs to self-medicate.

"It's tough to come back," says state Representative Allen Vaught, a Dallas Democrat, Iraq War veteran and co-author of the legislation creating the veterans courts. "It's tough to be in a crowded place. It's tough to go drive on a crowded freeway, go shopping inside a Walmart. Simple things that people will take for granted are significant emotional experiences for these veterans who are suffering."

Local statistics linking military status and incarceration aren't available, but a 2004 study by the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics said one in 10 U.S. prisoners had been in the military and reported a 53 percent increase in the number of veterans in state and federal prisons from 1985 to 2000. Getting these veterans out of the criminal justice system and into treatment became a passion for Vaught, who says he's the first one to champion the idea in Texas.

"It basically enables them to get a second chance at life," he says.

At downtown's Frank Crowley Courts Building on a muggy late-August morning, Judge Snipes calls out the names of the veterans he's expecting to see in the gallery. At 8 a.m. every Monday, the first-term judge requires the veterans assigned to his court to appear for status updates and, in several cases, provide urine samples, or UAs—short for urinalyses.

"We have mixed results here today," he says.

Eric Marquez and James Spears are no-shows. Spears, 41, is in Arkansas visiting his mother, who has cancer, he told the court. Marquez didn't manage to appear even though Tom Madrzykowski, one of the court's volunteer mentors, drove from Irving to Grand Prairie just to pick him up. Both Marquez and Spears have failed previous drug tests.

"He doesn't want to test positive today," Madrzykowski says of Marquez.

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Sam Merten
Contact: Sam Merten