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How The Criminal Justice System Can More Effectively Treat Veterans

About a third of all U.S. veterans are arrested and booked over their lifetime.

In an effort to take a close look at issues surrounding veterans and their involvement with the criminal justice system, the Veterans Justice Commission was formed this year by the think tank Council on Criminal Justice to discuss the risk factors that influence veterans as they reenter civilian life, and consider how the justice system responds when dealing with veterans who break the law.

The commission is chaired by former U.S. Defense Secretary and U.S. Senator Charles Hagel (R-NE). It will issue reports centered on three areas: the front end of the criminal justice system, the back end of the justice system, and the transition period from military life to civilian life.

Retired General David MacEwen, in a webinar hosted by Council on Criminal Justice, said that about 60 percent of veterans have no issue transitioning. The remaining 40 percent face challenges when returning to civilian life.

He mentioned that the required transitional program provided by the services and required by law is "one size fits none." MacEwen said, "Everybody does the same thing, there is no real analysis of what the needs are, especially needs from a mental health standpoint."

He said that the military, which spends money to recruit people, should be obligated to provide resources and help if the veteran is harmed in any way during the duration of their service.

Another factor is how veterans were discharged. For example, those who are discharged other than honorably face restricted access to resources and care, which can affect transitions.

"A veteran that is coming into the criminal justice system and is in need of underlying mental health or substance abuse treatment may not be eligible for it through the Veterans Administration because of the nature of their discharge from the military," said Brock Hunter, Founder of the Veterans Defense Project.

Hunter mentioned that while a majority of veterans return home intact, others face "invisible injuries that left untreated can land them in the criminal justice system..."

Hunter said the way the justice system deals with veterans is highly variable. Veterans who live in a jurisdiction that has a veterans treatment court have a path to "restorative justice." He said veterans courts operate the same way as drug and mental health courts, focusing on ways to treat defendants based partly on an understanding of their backgrounds.

However, fewer than one in six U.S. jurisdictions have a veterans treatment court, and not all of them operate in the same way. He said many veteran courts limit entry to those charged with low-level non-violent offenses.

"The idea behind restorative justice is that you see a criminal justice contact as an intervention opportunity; to intervene with the veteran, to get them the help they may not otherwise be able or willing to get themselves and to treat their underlying mental health or substance abuse conditions rather than just punishing criminal behavior," Hunter said.

When discussing criminal courts, Carla Bugg, Criminal Justice Services Coordinator of the Recovery Organization of Support Specialists, an Alabama organization that helps people struggling with addiction, said veterans are not treated for PTSD while being incarcerated. The lack of treatment can force veterans either to suffer or to self-medicate via illegal drugs.

Andrea Finlay, a research health scientist for the federal Veterans Health Administration, said that while the agency's purpose is to help those who serve, it is restricted by a policy that prevents delivering health care to veterans under the care of another institution.

Finlay said the best solution is to keep veterans out of incarceration by using early deflection and diversion programs, court programs centered on mental health care, and the implementation of the Healthcare for Reentry Veterans program, which focuses on supplying care after incarceration.


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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