After spending a few days in jail for drinking and driving, Iraq War veteran Jhovanny Pinto decided to change his lifestyle. He graduated from college, received a master’s degree in social work and began volunteering to help veterans who, like him, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Austin resident credits his life’s turnaround to the Travis County Veterans Court, a special type of court that serves veterans with post-traumautic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries or other service-related disorders. As part of the court’s program, veterans go through treatment and are regularly monitored by caseworkers. If they successfully complete treatment, they have the chance to have their charges expunged.
The court's future is now uncertain after Gov. Greg Abbott cut state grant funds to the county in February in response to Sheriff Sally Hernandez’s support of sanctuary cities. A month after Abbott pulled $1.5 million from the county, Veterans Court manager Jolene Grajczyk said the court is still scrambling to find money to make up for the lost funding.
In January, Hernandez officially established Travis County as a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants, saying she would reduce her department's cooperation with federal immigration authorities when they request an inmate be flagged for possible deportation. After Hernandez refused to back down on her sanctuary policy, Abbott proposed removing her from office and later removed funds from the county.
The Veterans Court, Grajczyk said, is not regulated by the county sheriff’s office and has little to do with it.
The governor believes the program is "extremely beneficial," which is why he enacted the grant in the first place, said Abbott's deputy communications director, Ciara Matthews. The grant was part of a $1.8 million award Travis County was set to receive from the criminal justice division of the governor's office, which each year allocates $275 million for projects that cater to children, veterans, women and justice systems across the state. By the time the governor pulled the grant, $300,000 had already been doled out to Travis County programs, including the Veterans Court.
Abbott "is baffled that the Travis County sheriff has decided to sacrifice it in favor of political grandstanding," Matthews said. "The sheriff could have kept the funding for this valuable program but instead has decided to enact a policy that makes our communities less safe by releasing criminals back onto our streets.”
Since Abbott’s grant withdrawal, the court’s tab has been picked up by the Travis County Commissioners Court. However, Grajczyk said this arrangement will end in May, when the Commissioners Court will evaluate county programs, putting the Veterans Court at risk.
County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, who presides over the commissioners court, said in a statement that the program not only helps veterans who struggle with PTSD and other combat-related mental health disorders, it also reduces the demand for state jail beds.
“The Veterans Court program does not have anything to do with immigration,” Eckhardt said. “It is a solid public safety program designed to improve the delivery of justice."
In February, state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, launched a local fundraising effort to finance Travis County services. Called Travis County #StrongerTogether, the campaign has raised over $110,000, which will be split among county programs that support women, children and veterans, including the Veterans Court.
The Veterans Court had expected its budget this year to be $191,380, according to Grajczyk.
"The revenue stream the governor cut off had nothing to do with his political vendetta against the Travis County Sheriff's Office," Rodriguez said in a statement. "Instead, the abrupt budget cuts have threatened services that positively change the lives of Texans.”
Grajczyk, a veteran herself, said the loss of funds could hurt hundreds of veterans in the state who could be criminally charged without having their disorders diagnosed.
“I wish I won the lottery because then I could pay to keep the program going myself,” Grajczyk said.
The Veterans Court is specifically set up to serve veterans who commit non-violent crimes that can be linked to service-related disorders. According to NPR, around 300 of these courts are active nationwide, offering veterans the chance to be tried under consideration of disorders caused by their service.
Eighty-three percent of veterans who come through the Travis County court do not re-offend, Grajczyk said. These veterans must go through three different levels of therapy and treatment before graduating from the program and, if they comply with program guidelines, they have the chance to get their charges expunged. The program, she said, has successfully graduated 162 veterans since it began in November 2010 and treats around 100 veterans a year.
Travis County Judge Mike Denton, who presides over the court, said it is common for a veteran to say at the end of treatment that the court saved their lives.
"Not only do we deal with whatever the underlying issue was, what they were arrested for, we also hook them up with a lot of veterans benefits," said Denton, who is also a veteran. "We owe this to the veteran, we made promises to them and then, in our name, they went into circumstances that most people could never imagine."
Pinto, who now hopes to get a job at the Department of Veterans Affairs, said he was disappointed to hear that the Veterans Court could be at risk. It is the nation’s duty, he said, to help veterans when they get back home.
"Regardless of political parties, or whatever is happening politically in our country, I don't think that should matter, I think that veterans should be taken care of regardless of who's in office," he said.
After hearing more than 16 hours of testimony, the Texas Senate State Affairs Committee voted 7-2 along party lines last month to advance a bill that would punish local government entities and college campuses that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration officials or enforce immigration laws.
Last month, Gov. Greg Abbott followed through on his threat to cut off state funding for Travis County over its new "sanctuary" policy.
State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, announced plans to raise public funds for Travis County after Gov. Greg Abbott canceled criminal justice grants over the county's new "sanctuary" policy.