VA Programs Seek to Keep Troubled Veterans Out of Jail

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Unmet Mental Health Needs Usually At Issue

By Annette M. Boyle

COLUMBIA, MO – For some veterans with unmet mental health needs, readjusting to civilian life can rapidly put them on the wrong side of the criminal justice system. In the past few years, partnerships between the courts and the VA have kept many veterans from continuing a downward spiral into prison by identifying and addressing these issues.

The need is huge. The Department of Justice estimated that more than 700,000 veterans in 2004 were under criminal justice supervision. In 2008, a veteran treatment court was established in Buffalo, NY, and quickly became a model for other jurisdictions. Today, 172 such courts or special dockets aim to provide services and oversight to veterans to help them reintegrate into society and stay out of the criminal justice system. By addressing the underlying causes of criminal involvement, the courts aim to reduce recidivism through treatment, intensive supervision and behavioral reinforcement.

A veterans treatment court. Photo from the VAntage Point Blog.

It’s hard to tell in advance who will need the highly structured support offered by the specialty courts, said Kelli Canada, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri School of Social Work. “It’s not like they’re discharged and in the criminal justice system the next day. There’s a lag time and an accumulation of violations.”

Kelli Canada

Kelli Canada

Veterans at risk of arrest and incarceration share characteristics with those in the general population. They tend to be male, minorities, single, young, anti-social and have unmet mental health needs, according to Canada’s research. That last factor drives much of the work of the specialty courts and the social workers who lead the interventions.

In the past decade, the number of veterans treated for mental illness and substance-use disorders has risen 38%. Nearly 20% or 460,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or major depression. Approximately 345,000 veterans of Operations Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn have a substance abuse problem.

“Many mental disorders, including PTSD can co-occur with substance use problems and uncontrolled anger or aggression, which can contribute to criminal conduct,” noted Canada and coauthor David Albright, also of the University of Missouri, in a study recently published in the Journal of Forensic Social Work. 1

The researchers point out that, while “there is no empirical support suggesting that mental illness causes criminal justice involvement, recent research does conclude that incarcerated veterans report more psychiatric and substance use problems prior to arrest and high rates of lifetime trauma.” In addition, imprisoned veterans have higher rates of psychiatric disorders than veterans in the general community.

Despite widespread publicity about violence and criminal behavior in returning veterans, other recent research indicates that, overall, the most recent generation of veterans has about half the risk of incarceration compared with older cohorts and constitutes less than 4% of the total number of veterans in prison today. Those who are incarcerated, however, were three times more likely to have PTSD.2

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