The justice system does not adequately identify veterans, steer them from prosecution and incarceration, and coordinate or research the effectiveness of programs that support them, says the Veterans Justice Commission of the think tank Council on Criminal Justice.
While there are data-based tools that can verify a person’s veteran status, only 9 of the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies and 11 percent of 3,100 jails report using them, relying on veterans to self-identify.
Many veterans do not do that because of shame or fear of losing benefits. Hundreds of places operate
specialized Veterans Treatment Courts (VTCs), but participation often is limited to minor offenses, and just 36 of 2,300 prosecutors’ offices reported operating veteran-specific diversion programs.
Veterans miss diversion opportunities or treatment targeting service-related trauma and other conditions that often drive their criminal behavior, the commission says.
The panel is led by former Defense Secretary and U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) and includes former Defense Secretary and White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta.
It issued three recommendations to address challenges confronting veterans at the front end of the criminal justice system, from arrest through sentencing.
--To improve identification of veterans in contact with the justice system, Congress should evaluate the effectiveness of databases that capture veteran status, order necessary improvements, and incentivize their use by local and state agencies.
--The commission urged Congress and state legislatures to codify a uniform definition of the term “veteran.” Now, the federal government, states, criminal justice agencies, and community programs all differ in
the criteria they use to determine who is, and who isn’t, a veteran, creating confusion and barriers to services.
--States and the federal government should expand or create opportunities for veterans to avoid arrest, conviction, or incarceration if they complete programs requiring them to take responsibility for their
actions and address issues underlying their offending. The panel said courts should be permitted to consider combat exposure and other military experiences a mitigating factor at sentencing.
Noting that reliable data on justice-involved veterans is lacking, the commission recommended that the federal government establish a National Center on Veterans Justice to fund research and identify effective
While many of the tens of thousands of veteran support groups are doing commendable work, the commission said that duplication of effort, lack of structured connectivity, and sporadic adoption of best practices hamper their impact.
“These recommendations are a call to action,” said Hagel, the only Vietnam veteran and the first enlisted combat veteran to have served as Secretary of Defense. “Too many veterans are ending up in our criminal justice system, and while they must be held accountable for their behavior, our nation has a responsibility to honor their service and help them address the factors that often drive them to break the law.”
One in three of the nation’s 19 million veterans report having been arrested at least once in their lifetime, and at last count, an estimated 181,500 veterans were incarcerated in local, state, or federal facilities. Former service members make up nearly 8% of those in state prisons and 5% of the federal prison
The council launched the two-year commission last August to assess the extent and nature of veterans’ justice-system involvement, the adequacy of support for service members as they return home, and the effectiveness of the system response when veterans break the law.
In addition to Hagel and Panetta, members include a former Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, the chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, two formerly incarcerated veterans, and other top military, veterans, and criminal justice leaders.