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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I was serving as a probation officer on the domestic violence unit of Pierce County District Court, near Air Force Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Pierce County, Washington. Some of my clients were service members. As one can imagine, after a few years of war, they began coming home with a host of lingering service-related mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). Unfortunately, as they attempted to acclimate back into the community, many started finding themselves in the crosshairs of the local criminal justice system and eventually on probation caseloads—in the middle of a system that was ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of war trauma. Soldiers who had no criminal histories before returning home from a combat tour now faced not only criminal charges but the reality of potentially being dishonorably discharged. Their lives were shattered, their careers ruined, and once-proud service members now sat broken before me and other probation staff in my department.
At the time, the field did not have veterans’ treatment courts, jail or prison pods for veterans, or law enforcement crisis teams trained to de-escalate veterans in crisis. Like other agencies across the country, we treated veterans just as any other justice-involved individual who came into our jurisdiction facing criminal charges. Criminal justice professionals were not trained to understand military culture or to factor PTSD, TBI, or other service-related issues into their case plans. A veteran was just another incarcerated individual or person on probation trying to work their way through the system—and that system did not address the underlying issues that likely contributed to their justice system involvement.
Shortly after accepting a position with the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) in 2012, I was asked to develop a project focusing on incarcerated veterans. This coincided with a veterans’ treatment court conference sponsored by Justice for Vets in Washington, D.C. I had the opportunity to meet quite a few of the key players in the veterans’ treatment court movement, including editor and Vietnam veteran Bernie Edelman. Bernie and I sat down one day in Washington’s Union Station and sketched the framework for a publication to highlight veterans’ treatment courts, bringing awareness and understanding to PTSD and other service-related issues. We identified several potential jurisdictions to visit that had implemented such courts and were demonstrating promising, innovative practices for working with veterans in their courtrooms.
Our first site visit was to where the first veterans’ treatment court started, in Buffalo, New York, with Judge Robert Russell. I had goosebumps sitting in court watching him welcome new veterans into the program. Veterans’ justice outreach (VJO) specialists from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) were right there in court, ready to assist eligible veterans with benefits and appointments. They had volunteer veteran peer mentors who would take new veterans into the hallway, chat with them, and learn what help they needed to fill in the gaps that the court could not provide. The veterans would come back into the courtroom and stand before the judge as onlookers gave the veterans a standing ovation and made them feel welcomed into the program.
It was simply amazing. What they did in that courtroom, in that jurisdiction, revolutionized the way the entire criminal justice system approaches working with justice-involved veterans.
In 2015, after more site visits and interviews, we compiled what we’d learned in Veterans Treatment Courts: A Second Chance for Vets Who Have Lost Their Way. This was the first publication in the Veterans Compendium: a project compiling resources on working with justice-involved veterans, from law enforcement, jail, and the court system to prison and reentry.
In 2016, NIC held a working group meeting with stakeholders from across the spectrum of criminal justice, including law enforcement, jails, veterans’ treatment courts, prisons, advocacy groups, and federal partners at the VA and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. This meeting led to the development of the Justice-Involved Veterans Network. Network members provided input on multiple NIC–sponsored veteran-specific projects, including broadcasts, webinars, panel events, conference workshops, and projects that focused on filling the gaps for the field to improve outcomes for veterans involved in the criminal justice system. The meeting led to four subsequent publications in the Veterans’ Compendium focusing on jail and prison pods, dorms, or units for veterans and one addressing law enforcement’s approach to working with veterans in crisis.
Today, the all-volunteer military releases the overwhelming majority of Americans from the obligation to serve. We owe the one-half of one percent who do don the uniform the opportunity to truly acclimate back into society and help them deal with any demons from their military service. Veteran-specific programs help address these underlying issues and provide a path to redemption so veterans can lead healthy, productive lives.
The goals of this project have always been to provide the field with resources, highlight promising and innovative practices, reduce recidivism, bring awareness to mental health issues related to military service, and inspire individuals and criminal justice agencies to want to do more to help veterans who find themselves caught up in the system. Because law enforcement officials are likely to be the first contact a veteran has with the system, it is critical that local law enforcement develop relationships with the VA, community-based treatment agencies, and other entities that provide services and alternatives to incarceration for veterans in crisis. The publications that are part of the Veterans’ Compendium help agencies do that.
To learn more, please visit the NIC-Sponsored Veterans Initiatives web page. If you have questions, contact project manager Greg Crawford, Correctional Program Specialist at the National Institute of Corrections, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correctional Program Specialist
National Institute of Corrections
Photos courtesy of the National Institute of Corrections.
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