Establish a National Center on Veterans Justice to Improve Justice-Involved Veterans Programs through Research and Coordination
Assessing how well our nation is managing justice-involved veterans requires determining the size of the affected populations. Unfortunately, we have few clues. Approximately one third of veterans indicate that they have been arrested at least once in their lifetime, but that statistic relies on self-reported data.39 In addition, the most recent estimate of incarcerated veterans comes from 2011; it identified 181,500 veterans in state and federal prisons and local jails.40 These two findings underscore an unfortunate truth: reliable data on justice-involved veterans and the circumstances surrounding their criminal offending is sorely lacking.
Despite that fact, there has been tremendous growth in the number of organizations dedicated to the problem, and to veterans generally. Estimates place the number of veteran support organizations in the U.S. between 20,000 and 60,000. Many are doing commendable work, but duplication of effort, and a lack of structured connectivity, hamper their potential broad-scale impacts. While there have been initiatives to coordinate the efforts of these groups at a local level, the Commission knows of no national organization with the mission or capacity to facilitate coordination on a broader scale, or between veterans’ organizations and federal and state agencies.41
Within this criminal justice system, some police, prosecutors, courts, and corrections agencies have modified their policies and programs to address military veterans’ criminogenic risks and needs. Still, veteran-specific interventions are rare, and program approaches vary substantially. For example, in a 2021 national scan of more than 2,300 prosecutors’ offices, only 36 reported operating veteran-specific diversion programs.42 Similarly, of the 3,100 local jails nationwide, only 46 operate special veteran housing units.43
“The Commission finds that the lack of coordination between programs for justice-involved veterans results in the duplication of efforts, a lack of proper program evaluation, and an inability to disseminate best practices.”
While veteran-specific interventions are few, some that do exist have been widely replicated without the benefit of rigorous program evaluation. Law enforcement Veteran Response Teams, Veteran Treatment Courts (now numbering more than 600),44 and VA Veterans Justice Outreach (with nearly 400 Veteran Justice Outreach specialists)45 are examples of veteran-specific programs that have spread across the U.S. over the last decade but lack proper study. Champions of each of these interventions share powerful stories highlighting the success of individual participants, and many contend that the programs are based on analogous best practices established among a general justice-involved population (e.g., drug treatment courts as a basis for Veterans Treatment Courts). The Commission does not dispute that many positive outcomes appear to flow from such initiatives. But while it makes sense to gradually expand veteran access to these programs, the Commission cannot unequivocally endorse their rapid spread absent validation by research.
The Commission finds that the lack of coordination between programs for justice-involved veterans results in the duplication of efforts, a lack of proper program evaluation, and an inability to disseminate best practices. As a result, justice-involved veterans seeking assistance often confront a confusing and disjointed network of untested interventions.
The federal government should create a National Center for Veterans Justice to lead a coordinated effort to improve outcomes for veterans in the criminal justice system.
The National Center for Veterans Justice should be responsible for:
a. Enhancing the coordination of information, data, and best practices between and among programs serving justice-involved veterans.
b. Identifying research gaps in veterans’ programs.
c. Funding original research and technical assistance to fill those gaps and encouraging programmatic innovation to expand evidence-based practice for justice-involved veteran interventions.
The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, in collaboration with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Department of Defense (DOD), Department of Justice (DOJ), Social Security Administration (SSA), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and law enforcement agencies, should issue a Request for Proposal to support the creation of a National Center for Veterans Justice. Proposals should be assessed based on how effectively they address the center’s ability to:
a. Hold, organize, and maintain for review current information about governmental and nongovernmental programs serving justice-involved veterans. This information should be made easily accessible, allowing justice-involved veterans to identify practitioners and organizations listed by specialty and geographic region.
b. Maintain systems used to identify justice-involved veterans (per Recommendation One) and permit review by anyone entitled to that information.
c. Establish practices to allow veteran service programs to coordinate with each other, including greater sharing of data and best practices identified through program evaluation.
d. Establish data sharing arrangements with the VA, DOD, DOJ, SSA, DHS, ICE, law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, jails, and courts.
i. Explain how this data sharing will be utilized to identify how many veterans are encountering the criminal justice system.
ii. Explain how the National Center will analyze the disparities and outcomes among these veterans and address those disparities and outcomes.
e. Establish sources of funding for the National Center’s ongoing operations, including support from the VA, DOD, DOJ, SSA, DHS, and ICE.
f. Provide technical assistance grants to support the innovation, expansion, and evaluation of new and existing interventions for justice-involved veterans.
g. Conduct, support, and oversee research on current levels of justice involvement among veterans, as well as evaluations of existing interventions designed to aid this population. Initial research and evaluation should cover the following topics related to the front end of the criminal justice system:
i. The number of veterans experiencing different contact points at the front end of the criminal justice system (e.g., arrest, pretrial detention, jail) overall and by race, ethnicity, gender, benefit eligibility, employment and housing status, and other demographic characteristics.
ii. The pathways to criminal justice involvement by veterans overall and by veterans with specific demographic characteristics, such as race, ethnicity, and gender.
iii. The pathways to criminal justice involvement by veterans’ employment and housing status, benefit eligibility, character of discharge, and non-criminal court involvement (such as child custody, family law, and domestic violence matters).
iv. The number of veterans reached by, and the effectiveness of, interventions at different stages of the front end of the criminal justice system (diversion, arrest, detention, prosecution, sentencing).46