It’s Thursday evening on the third floor of the Blackwell-Thurman Justice Center in Austin, and Ronnie Bennett is waiting to see if he is about to get kicked out.
Bennett, 37, is a former Army staff sergeant who served two tours of duty in Iraq in 2003 and 2005. The tours took him to Baghdad, Fallujah, Mosul and Tikrit. They also left him with post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic panic attacks that drove him to become a “hopeless alcoholic,” as Bennett puts it.
He managed to hide his drinking from his family until 2015, when he was charged with driving while intoxicated and unlawfully carrying a weapon.
The arrest was a low point for Bennett, but it led him to the Veterans Court in Travis County, a program that connects veterans charged with crimes related to military trauma to resources that can get their lives back on track.
But the court’s future is in doubt after Gov. Greg Abbott pulled its state grant last week, gutting 90 percent of its budget to punish Travis County for its immigrant “sanctuary” policies.
The Veterans Court is among several criminal diversion and rehabilitation programs supported by the $1.5 million in state grants that Abbott canceled after Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez ended blanket cooperation with detention requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Under Hernandez’s policy, the sheriff’s office would automatically fulfill ICE requests to keep undocumented immigrants suspected or convicted of aggravated sexual assault, murder or human trafficking in jail so they can be turned over to federal authorities. But detention requests for lesser crimes would require a judicial warrant or court order.
Hernandez’s mostly Republican critics say the policy will release violent criminals. Her supporters, many of them fellow Democrats , believe it will stop unnecessary deportations that lead to mistrust of law enforcement.
For Bennett, using the Veteran Court as a political football in a partisan spat is “beyond disgusting.”
“It’s life and death, not a political game,” said Bennett, who found sobriety in the program, but recently relapsed and was arrested again. “(For) a lot of these folks, it is the only access they have to assistance. It is just unacceptable for it to go away for them because of all this.”
Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt appealed to Abbott last week in a letter, reminding him that he would be cutting funds to the Veterans Court and programs like it. His office responded that criminal justice grants “must be used to uphold the justice system and cannot be wasted on local governments intent on undermining it.”
Of those who complete Veterans Court, 83 percent weren’t arrested again. Its participants often call the program a life-changing experience that led them out of the depths of substance abuse. The court encourages veterans to share their experiences, greeting them with smiles and applause for completing tasks that can lead to the eventual dismissal of their charges.
Since the court began about six years ago, it has produced 160 “graduates” — what its staff call the veterans who complete the program’s regular drug tests, court visits and mandatory alcohol monitoring. The court maintains a relatively small docket of between 45 to 55 veterans from all branches of the armed forces and recently began accepting veterans who were victims of sexual assault while in the service.
“When the country and the state asked them, they stood up,” the court’s presiding judge, Mike Denton, said. “We needed them. Now they need us.”
Denton is an Army veteran with many family members in the military. In his chambers, he keeps a commendation his father received from a South Korean general during the Korean War.
“There has been a tenet in every military unit that you don’t leave anyone behind,” Denton said. “That’s what these courts do. We want to make sure that they don’t get left behind.”
When Abbott pulled the $193,930 Veterans Court grant on Wednesday, he eliminated funds that pay the salary and benefits for its two full-time staffers, as well as for treatment services for veterans, training for staff and drug testing kits, program administrator Jolene Grajczyk, an Air Force veteran, said.
The court receives no money from Travis County. Its only other source of funding is a $20,000 grant from the Texas Veterans Commission that pays for ankle bracelets that monitor alcohol use.
Abbott’s move left the county scrambling to find ways to keep the court and other diversion programs running. On Friday, state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez announced a fundraising effort called Travis County #StrongerTogether to make up for the pulled grants.
The political fight didn’t stop Denton from holding court Thursday. At 5 p.m., about two dozen veterans filed in and took their seats in County Court-at-Law No. 4.
Nearly every defendant smiled as they were called up to approach the bench. They shook hands with their defense attorney, sometimes traded japes about their respective military branches. The Army Corps of Engineers was especially mocked at one point when a hulking Marine vet told Denton he’d rather die than work with them again.
The court is “a totally different thing. It’s a team, it’s a family,” Denton said. “One of the reasons that it has such a high success rate is because they make connections.”
The court meets every two weeks. Veterans provide status updates, lawyers reveal the results of the vets’ drug tests, and they progress through three phases that gradually cut back on the frequency of court appearances. If successful, their charges are dismissed and expunged from their record.
On Thursday, one man was set for graduation. Denton has high praise for the graduate because he passed every drug test during the program. Like all graduates before him, he prepared a speech for the court.
“I’ve learned how to live through each day, whether it is going to be good or going to be bad,” he said, before telling the newcomers that the program is the best thing that has happened to him.
Denton then shakes his hand from the bench and gives him a gold military challenge coin with the seal of Travis County. On the other side are insignias from all five military branches and a message: “Travis County Veterans Court. Leave No Veteran Behind.”
While the large majority of defendants were presenting good news to the court on Thursday, Bennett, the former Army staff sergeant, could be removed from the program because of another drunken driving arrest in recent weeks.
He stood before the judge briefly with his arms crossed behind his back as if he were standing at ease in front of a commanding officer. After a few minutes of talking, it becomes clear that the charge is too new for them to decide whether Bennett can remain in the program. He’s told to come back in two weeks.
“You’ve got a lot of people on your side,” Denton said.