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Out on the battlefield, even in court

Posted by Sara Cooper | Jul 19, 2023 | 0 Comments

More than 180,000 veterans have been or are currently incarcerated in our nation's prisons at least once in their lives.

Let's think about that for a second. Where did this involvement of the criminal legal system derive from, and why does it seem like a neglected matter?

Here is the simple explanation: Failure to prioritize veterans' health (psychological and physical), little to no adequate rapport to up track data on critical information for agencies, and poor funding and infrastructure of services during and after military service.

According to ACLU, it wasn't until 1980 that the psychiatric community formally recognized Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 15 percent of Vietnam War veterans experience PTSD, and 11 to 20 percent of veterans of wars from Iraq and Afghanistan experience PTSD. Veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are also more likely to be arrested for violent offenses and to be involved with the criminal justice system compared with veterans without PTSD (Taylor et al., 2020).

PTSD has an assortment of triggers and presentations, and it can heighten the risk of obtaining a substance use disorder, that can also lead to incarceration. It's not to say that treating PTSD as the only solution in preventing incarceration or determining its difficulties as the well-being of a veteran and the direct result of war and military contribution. Veterans are also neglected when coming home, not obtaining the services that Veteran Affairs are supposed to provide. Even VA cannot keep track of their population long-term and are not usually proficient in whom is in prison or are criminally charged.

Many changes happen when a veteran is incarcerated. For disability compensation benefits, payments are reduced if a veteran is convicted of a felony and imprisoned for more than 60 days. Depending on the percentage they are given by the VA, their payments are reduced differently. For 10 percent for example, the payment is reduced by one-half. Once the veteran has completed their sentencing and is released, compensation payments may be completely reinstated depending on the severity of the disabilities at that time. Payments are not reduced for recipients participating in work release programs, residing in halfway house (also known as “residential re-entry centers”, or under community control. The amount of increased compensation offered to an incarcerated veteran is most likely to be subjected to decrease due to being in prison.

Veterans whom are eligible for pension from Veteran Affairs will have those payment terminated effectively after 60 days (61st day is when that period of termination starts) when imprisoned in either a local, state, or federal institution (whether convicted for a felony or misdemeanor). These payments can be resumed when released from prison and meets the eligibility requirements for the VA.

Jurisdictional overview of trauma that is faced by veterans is usually examined in veterans treatment courts, which “divert former service members away from incarceration in suitable cases,” according to Times. That includes the combination of drug testing, mandatory treatment, and regular appearances before a judge, with some VTC have good track record on those components of a veterans' description. However, veterans are poorly shaped and misunderstood on their conditions that end them up behind bars.

Other factors that veterans face that can lead to incarceration include career opportunities being limited, attitudes that are supportive of crime, and involvement with family members or friends who have been involved in the criminal justice system. Limited research is still an existing factor with veterans at-risk of incarceration and the unique populations that involved veterans. According to RAND, there has also been limited exploration of the role of military culture and the risk of criminal justice system involvement. For example, military culture promoting hypermasculinity can be a prompting attribute in sexually assaultive behavior and violence and that VTCs have supported military culture as protective and sustainable long-term. It seems that it has more negative impacts than positive promises.

A long, decade lawsuit introduced by ACLU, Jensen v. Thornell, had a sweeping injunction on April 7, 2023. The district judge has required the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry (ADCRR) to shift the conditions and staffing dramatically with constitutional mandates that are up-to-code with medical care and mental healthcare in all Arizona prisons. Fighting for medical access and mental health care at maximum security where many incarcerated veterans are detained for years and decades without proper care is a responsibility that both state and federal corrections are at blame for. Even though this was not a federal decision made in California, it's a pathway in supporting veterans on a national level.

Here are some recommendations that ACLU has correlated to have Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation & Reentry (ADCRR) follow under the Court's Order:

  • Address chronic staffing problems by filling all currently vacant health care positions and hiring additional health care staff, including doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, and psych associates within three months of the Order;
  • Develop and implement a new sick call process, in which all people who request medical attention will see a Doctor, Nurse Practitioner or Physician's Assistant, without being required to first see a nurse for triage;
  • Identify people who are not fluent in English, and ensure that they have adequate interpretation services for all individual and group health care encounters;
  • Greatly expand their program to screen and treat people with Hepatitis C; and
  • Develop and implement a comprehensive program to treat people for Opioid Use Disorder.

Here is a Special Report made by the U.S. Department of Justice: Office of Justice Programs, with data conducted on incarcerated veterans from 2011-2012. Information is most likely subjected to be changed due to up-to-date records for the past decade as a disclaimer: 

Recommendations for addressing challenges for veterans that are impacted by the criminal justice system, from arrest through sentencing, issued by the Veterans Council Commission:

  • To improve identification of veterans when they come into contact with the justice system, Congress should authorize a study to evaluate the effectiveness of databases that capture veteran status, order necessary improvements, and incentivize their use by local and state agencies. Addressing a related problem, the Commission urged Congress and state legislatures to codify a uniform definition of the term “veteran.” As detailed in a report to the Commission, the federal government, states, criminal justice agencies, and community programs all differ in the specific 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 pass laws expanding or creating opportunities for veterans to avoid prosecution, conviction, or incarceration if they complete programs, including VTCs, requiring them to take responsibility for their actions and address issues underlying their criminal offending. The Commission also said courts should be permitted to consider combat exposure and other military experiences at mitigating factor at sentencing, including in cases involving violence.
  • Noting that reliable data on justice-involved veterans is sorely lacking, the Commission recommended that the federal government establish a National Center on Veterans Justice to fund research and identify effective program interventions. The center also would facilitate coordination among the tens of thousands of veterans support groups in the U.S.; while many are doing commendable work, the Commission found that duplication of effort, lack of structured connectivity, and sporadic adoption of best practices hamper their potential broad-scale impacts.

Risk-reduction efforts should just be placed within the jurisdiction's system or while the veteran is incarcerated. Implementation of excellent healthcare, realistic expectations of a person's performance in the military, and shifting the culture for those on active duty all can lessen the chances of incarceration when completing their service.

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