From the Battlefield to Prison


prison In a series of articles to mark Veterans Day, The Crime Report examines the impact of returning soldiers on the U.S. justice system. In Part 1, we explore the special tragedy of troubled veterans in prison.

Most of the returning veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan never get in trouble with the law–but the outlook is bleak for those who do. The U.S. justice system is poorly prepared to cope with young ex-military personnel whose post-combat stress or inability to adjust to civilian society pushes them over the line into criminal activity, a special report by The Crime Report shows.

Although the number of incarcerated veterans has not risen dramatically, a Bureau of Justice Statistics report planned for release next year is expected to show that for the first time since the Vietnam War, the majority of veterans now serving prison terms are between the ages of 25 and 34. With no early end of America's overseas military commitments in sight, U.S. authorities need to devote more attention to the needs of troubled soldiers, says Paul Sullivan, Executive Director of Veterans for Common Sense, a national advocacy group based in Washington D.C.. Improving and expanding treatment and prison counseling programs for needy veterans can “make a tremendous difference” if corrections officials made this a top priority, Sullivan adds “It can save untold lives and billions of dollars.”

A recent Department of Veterans Affairs study underlined the gravity of the problem. Rates of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), major depression, and generalized anxiety among returning veterans ranged from 15.6 percent to 17.1 percent after duty in Iraq, and 11.2 per cent after duty in Afghanistan. Such conditions are not necessarily a predictor of criminal activity, but this month's tragedy at Fort Hood, in which an Army psychiatrist opened fire at a processing facility for soldiers going overseas, killing 13 and wounding 30, further underscores how little is understood about dealing with troubled military personnel. Although the motives for the shooting are still unclear, it underlines the critical importance of intervention, counseling and preventive treatment for soldiers whose reactions to trauma and stress have brought them in contact with the justice system.

“We have to address issues that veterans in the system feel were not addressed when they came back from Vietnam, ” said James McGuire, PhD, Veterans Affairs Program Manager, Health-Care for Reentry Veterans Program at The Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA does not want this current crop of veterans to feel their needs are neglected after returning civilian life.

Specialized Programs, No Precedents

There are still few systematic procedures in place either on the federal or state level to deal with vets who have been imprisoned or are under correctional supervision. In a program that began in May 2009, Justice Outreach Specialists have been assigned by each of the nation's 140 medical centers operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Still in the early stages of development, the program is aimed at coordinating counseling and other programs with local justice authorities, including law enforcement. The VA also funds and supplies counselors in conjunction with community organizations in individual states. New York's Veterans Project, for instance, steers troubled vets away from lawbreaking activities by helping them with housing, mental health or substance abuse problems.

Perhaps the most innovative approach has been the creation of Veterans Courts. There are currently 18 courts around the nation, with 42 others in the planning stages, according to the VA. Borrowing from the model of other “problem-solving courts” dealing with drug offenders, these courts allow most low-risk defendants to avoid incarceration in exchange for strict monitoring. Veterans who have been arrested can self-identify to the court and ask to be put on this track.

Without a longitudinal study on the effectiveness of these courts, it is hard to discern if they are actually helping veterans. Nevertheless, there are few other alternatives that address the needs of both communities and ex-soldiers. A Veterans Court in Rochester, New York opened in January 2009 with a grant from the Department of Justice. In the first six months it has dealt with 56 active cases.

According to presiding judge Patricia Marks, the success rate of such courts depends on close coordination with communities and law enforcement. “Communities need to assess their resources and impact of returning vets,” says Marks. “Sometimes it takes a while to discover PTSD. When people become educated about issues that veterans face, law enforcement can reduce their interactions.”

Sullivan of Veterans for Common Sense says the purpose of such innovative approaches is not to excuse criminal behavior by vets–but to deal with them before their problems, and the potential threat to society, is aggravated. “If you do the crime you do the time,” he told The Crime Report. “But these courts are needed because so many veterans have fallen through the cracks. Veterans picked up on first offense can be assessed for mental health instead of going to jail.”

One important limitation: Veterans Courts are established for dealing with minor offenses, but historical data suggests that soldiers or returning veterans usually land in prison for serious felonies such as assault. A 1998 Bureau of Justice Statistics study found that more than half of the veterans in state prisons around the U.S. were convicted of violent offenses. More recent statistics are not available. Moreover, almost 30 percent of offenders in military detention are held for rape and sexual assault, compared to seven to eight percent of the civilian population, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Once discharged from the military, civilian criminal justice does not have access to the veterans prior history.

However, experts say, soldiers that commit sexual assault in the military are likely to repeat their offenses.
The figures for rape and sexual assault highlight the special problem of military personnel who are apprehended on charges of domestic violence. Women's advocates argue that soldiers or veterans who are guilty of spousal abuse should not get special treatment. “The reality is you have vets who were using violence before they had PTSD,” said Connie Sponsler-Garcia, Military Project Manager at Battered Women Justice Project in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which recently released the report, “A Guide to Developing a Military/Civilian Coordinated Community Response to Domestic Violence.” “There are two different issues: domestic violence is one and PTSD is another.”

Nevertheless, a 2009 VA study by Charles Marmar of the University of California, San Francisco found that families of veterans with PTSD are more likely to suffer domestic violence or intimate partner violence than families of veterans without PTSD. Which is one reason that veterans would be better served in a special court, says military law expert and former Air Force Officer Elizabeth Hillman, who teaches this subject at Hastings College of the Law. “[A veteran's] court would be better prepared to handle domestic violence than the military. Former service members' (criminal activities) are best addressed in a place that understands them.”

Next Steps

But the range of options for dealing with troubled vets is still limited. Numerous NGOs and community organizations are joining forces with the federal government to search for new and innovative ways to assist veterans. For example, the Battered Women Justice Project received a grant from the Office of Violence Against Women to study domestic violence, veterans and the criminal justice system. Other organizations, including the Vera Institute of Justice, are working on a project tentatively titled “Returning Heroes,” which looks at the intersection of the criminal justice system and veterans.

Unfortunately, the data from these studies may not be available for months, if not years. Meanwhile, as America's overseas military commitments continue, the challenge of dealing with troubled vets is likely to grow.

NEXT: Vets and Cops: Law enforcement agencies around the US are filling their ranks with returning soldiers.

Cara Tabachnick is News Editor of The Crime Report.

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