by Matt Clarke
With little opposition from either party, the Texas Legislature passed HB 3391, authorizing the creation of the nation’s first public safety employees treatment courts. The courts will allow police, firefighters, prison and jail guards, and emergency medical services employees facing charges to defer criminal prosecution by entering a treatment program. Program fees will be up to $1,000, and those who complete it will have their criminal charges dismissed. Participants will neither face criminal punishment nor have a criminal record.
Public safety employees will be able to enter the program regardless of what kind of felony or misdemeanor offense with which they are charged. The only requirements are that the current or former public safety employee have “suffered from a brain injury, mental illness, or mental disorder that occurred during or resulted from the defendant’s duties as a public safety employee and affected the criminal conduct at issue” and “participation in the program was likely to achieve the objective of ensuring public safety through rehabilitation.”
The law requires: that the defendant be provided with legal counsel before volunteering for the program; an individualized treatment plan, and an opportunity to withdraw from the program at any point prior to trial. The court’s jurisdiction will be a minimum of six months and will expire when the community supervision period ends.
The law allows the transfer of a case from a county that has no such specialty court to one that does, provided the defendant lives or works in that county.
It permits the collection of a program fee of up to $1,000, plus the costs of testing, counseling, and treatment, and adds the public safety treatment courts to the list of specialty courts funded by a $60 court cost imposed on certain drug and intoxication convictions.
Although the new specialty courts are modeled on existing veterans courts, there is no evidence that police, firefighters, prison and jail guards, and emergency medical personnel suffer from mental trauma or impoverishment at anywhere near the rate of military veterans.
“I don’t really understand why the law is necessary,” said Katy Mitchell, sentencing campaign coordinator for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, who specializes in police practices. “Police officers generally have good benefits if they need treatment. Specialty courts typically have been designed for folks who are desperately in need of services.”
The Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (“CLEAT”) was the driving force behind the bill’s passage. It breezed through the Legislature along with other bills, such as a $25 million grant program to purchase bulletproof vests for law enforcement agencies, focused on helping police in the wake of the shooting of multiple police officers by a sniper in Dallas. However, no one seems to have asked whether there was a need for the courts.
Several judges in large Texas counties told The Texas Tribune they had not heard of anyone requesting a public safety employees specialty court in their counties. In fact, CLEAT could not name a single county that wanted to create such a court.
Critics charge that the law creates a special class of Texans who will receive special privileges and treatment, possibly putting them above the law. Since drug abuse was envisioned as the primary type of charge handled by the new courts, there is no reason such cases could not be handled by already existing drug treatment specialty courts.
Sources: House Research Organization Bill Analysis – H.B. No. 3391, www.texastribune.org
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