Seeking freedom and justice for all veterans

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For more than a decade, the red and blue states have worked to pass a series of reforms that improve security and justice. At the federal level, Congress has also made bipartisan progress on criminal justice, including with the First Step Act of 2018.

Despite these gains, a key issue has been largely ignored: how the justice system handles the men and women convicted of crimes who also served our country in the armed forces.

There are more veterans in US prisons than the total number of prisoners in all but 14 countries.

Specialist courts that deal with cases involving veterans with substance use disorders have begun to address this critical aspect of the challenge, but daunting issues such as lack of connections to essential services and access to benefits depending on the characterization of the output remain. Today, the Criminal Justice Council (CCJ) is launching a large-scale initiative to document the unique issues facing veterans in the civilian justice system – and build consensus for reforms that improve the safety, health and righteousness.

In an interview with Philanthropy Roundtable, project director Colonel Jim Seward discussed challenges and opportunities for progress.

Q: What is the overarching problem that the CCJ’s Veterans Justice Project is addressing, and how will this initiative solve it?

A: We have come a long way since the widespread horrors of “broken veterans” after the Vietnam War. But far too many veterans are incarcerated and too few services are available to address their behavioral health issues, traumatic brain injuries and other conditions that contribute to the high rate at which they enter the civilian justice system. We will tackle these and other issues through a multi-year research, policy development and communications initiative that spans the full scope of the system, from transition out of military service to reintegration. in the society. Aimed at building consensus and political momentum for evidence-based reforms, the project will be guided by a diverse committee of senior military and criminal justice officials. A research team will establish key facts and context to inform the committee’s discussions and shape its conclusions. These findings will become actionable policy recommendations that we will aggressively disseminate to federal, state, and local policymakers and practitioners, as well as to the media and the public. Although veterans have been involved in the criminal justice system in large numbers since the post-Civil War era, there remains a lack of rigorous research to assess the effectiveness of efforts to meet their unique needs upon return. to civilian life. It’s time to change that – and elevate the issue into a national conversation.

Q: What was the main obstacle to carrying out this work?

A: The scale of the problems. Diving into the work the Department of Defense is doing to ease the transition of veterans from active duty to civilian life, for example, is a huge lift. The same goes for the scope of work that other federal agencies have done to care for veterans and address their mental health needs and other challenges, and then to master various ongoing efforts at the state and local levels. . This research is key to understanding the scope of work that is being done, what has worked and what is still relevant. Lack of data in other areas will be an additional complication. For example, the identification of incarcerated veterans is not a uniform practice in jails and state prisons. While the Department of Veterans Affairs has an identification system available to law enforcement agencies, many do not use it or even know about it. But these obstacles are opportunities: by elevating these issues and building support for solutions, we have a chance to bring about real change that can benefit veterans and their families.

Q: What’s one surprising thing you’ve learned along the way?

A: Two things. One is the extent of veterans’ entanglement in the justice system. In 2016, the last year for which we have reliable data, 107,400 veterans were in federal and state prisons, and about 181,500 were in local jails and jails. Nearly a third of veterans have been arrested and incarcerated at some point in their lives, a rate significantly higher than among civilians (18%). The other surprise is that more has not been done to improve criminal justice policies and practices for the benefit of the men and women who have served our country. There has been almost surprisingly little research and policy work. There is a huge void to fill.

Q: How can people interested in supporting your work help you?

A: This project requires strong data collection, research and considerable resources to communicate results to the right audiences at strategic times. CCJ welcomes help from anyone who can share ongoing research and other information that would support the project. Additionally, we welcome the assistance of funding partners to ensure that our investigation and thorough deliberations succeed in improving the lives of veterans, their families, and their communities.

If you would like to help accelerate the impact of this organization, please contact Erica Haines, Philanthropy Roundtable Program Director or contact Col. Jim Seward, Project Director of The Veteran’s Justice Project at the Council for Criminal Justice at America’s future is bright, but dialogue, the refinement of ideas, and a commitment to our country’s values ​​and principles are fundamental to our future.