“Once ensnared by the system, veterans often present a complex set of needs and risk factors that are distinctive from those characteristic of civilians without a military background."
Veterans returning home face multiple challenges as they leave the structure of military life and attempt to reintegrate with civilian society. Most weather that transition admirably, but many struggle with addiction, mental health challenges, traumatic brain injuries, or PTSD. Studies show that deployment-related trauma exposure, combined with increased incidence of mental health and substance use disorders, elevate veterans’ risk of contact with the justice system. One in three of the nation’s 19 million veterans report having been arrested and booked in their lifetime, and more than 181,000 are behind bars. Once ensnared by the system, veterans often present a complex set of needs and risk factors that are distinctive from those characteristic of civilians without a military background. But multiple barriers prevent many veterans from receiving the targeted interventions they need.
The Veterans Justice Commission is assessing the extent and nature of veterans’ justice-system involvement, the adequacy of transitional assistance for service members as they return home, and the effectiveness of the justice system response when veterans break the law. Chaired by former U.S. Defense Secretary and U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel, the Commission includes former U.S. Defense Secretary and White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta and 13 other leaders in science, the judiciary, the recovery field, healthcare, corrections, law enforcement, veterans' affairs, and the military.
This report provides recommendations focused on the “front end” of the justice system, covering everything from arrest through criminal sentencing. These early stages of the criminal justice process are critical, as they provide a key opportunity to identify the challenges facing veterans and to connect them to services and benefits tailored to help them address those challenges.
While mechanisms targeting justice-involved veterans on the system’s front end exist, the Commission’s careful consideration of current federal, state, and local policy suggests that they are relatively scarce, disconnected, and localized. Moreover, where existing initiatives have shown promise in early assessments, there is a lack of rigorous evaluation to guide the development and proliferation of best practices. Finally, data on justice-involved veterans is limited, making it difficult to identify the full scope of the problem.
The Commission has developed three recommendations to improve and expand support for veterans in the early stages of the criminal justice process. Each recommendation is accompanied by a summary of findings as well as a list of detailed actions to guide implementation. Future reports will examine problems veterans face during their transition from military to civilian life and at the back end of the justice system.
“The Commission has developed three recommendations to improve and expand support for veterans in the early stages of the criminal justice process.”