How to Help Vets in Trouble with the Law

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For many years, it was a staple of movies and TV shows; the vet — almost always from Vietnam, but sometimes from the first Gulf War — who hadn't never been quite able to handle the return to their everyday lives after military service. Sometimes it would only take a slight nudge to send them over the edge into trouble with the law, like in the novel "First Blood" which was later turned into the first of many Rambo films. Sometimes the story featured a vet who seemed normal — they might even work in law enforcement — but could fall into a rage-filled anger at a moment's notice, like James Lee Burke's Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux.

The reality of the situation is that a certain percentage of vets do get into trouble with the law, often linked to experiences during their time in the military. And that number has increased as more veterans have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan. (But not as many as you might think. A study by the Justice Department in 2000, showed that the incarceration of vets is about 60 percent of non-veterans. There is one difference among incarcerated veterans than non-veterans. White males comprise a much larger percentage of vets in jail than white males do in the other category.)

So how to help those vets who do find themselves in legal trouble? One answer is might be what is happening in Buffalo. NPR's Libby Lewis reports on a special veterans court — working in conjunction with the Veterans Affairs Department — that tries to help veterans in trouble with the law. The court appoints mentors, often other veterans or active-duty soldiers, to help those in trouble get their lives back on track. The men in trouble with the law have to check in regularly with the court and prove that they are making the effort to get out of trouble in order to avoid jail time.

Do vet courts sound like a good idea? Is this something that you think should be used in the rest of the country?

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This begs the question: If this process works well for veterans why not extend it to the general population? Our prisons are full of non-violent offenders who could benefit from counseling, diversion, and other programs. I spent 15 months in a Federal Prison Camp and it was apparent to me that many of my fellow inmates did not belong there. Too many people are locked up for non-violent drug offenses. Let's start treating the person, not the offense, for those people who commit non-violent offenses.

Sent by Chris Roady | 3:24 PM | 5-7-2008

What about the non hot-war vets? I am sure that being stuck in a missile silo 50' underground during the Cold War can cause some possible mental issues and tendencies.

Sent by E | 3:25 PM | 5-7-2008

Beyond the Veterans Court is a broader effort (the WNY Veterans Project) in Buffalo to intervene before vets find themselves in trouble with the law. We're not waiting for the data or funding. We're bringing the VA, community-based mental health providers, and the veterans service organizations (ie VFW) together to take action now. By using the community-based providers, we can reach those combat vets that are still active, help families, and combine the expertise of the VA with the resources of the communities they live in.

(Also, the involvement of the vet peer volunteers in the court is extremely important.)

Sent by David Mann | 3:32 PM | 5-7-2008

YES! I am a mental health professional working in the field of chemical dependency treatment. I have seen many vietnam vets over the years who struggle with this many faceted issue. Some return to prison repeatedly because they cannot function on the outside. PTSD is a huge factor that was so unrecognized for many years, and even now the treatment options are limited. The recent veterans who are returning from multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanastan are and will continue to flood the civilian courts and social services as currently the VA is inadequate in addressing the problems of returning vets. California has had some diversion programs which many vets have been involved in such as Prop. 36, and Drug Court, but state budget cuts in mental health and drug and alcohol services are limiting these, as well as medicaid funding which some low income vets might have qualified for in the past. We need more services for these service people (not all of them are men). We must save the health and lives of those who have served our country. Jill Erramouspe, LCSW, Redding, California.

Sent by M. Jill Erramouspe, LCSW | 3:40 PM | 5-7-2008

I would like to give my sincere thanks for covering this topic and also to the government of Buffalo for recognizing the unique circumstances of veterans.

In my family there are veterans from both the Vietnam and Iraq Wars and both suffer from different degrees of PTSD. From experience with my family, I do not believe the general public truly understands the unique experiences and struggles these veterans face on a day to day basis.

Once again, my sincere thanks goes to the government of Buffalo for recognizing this problem.

Sent by Michelle Badger | 3:51 PM | 5-7-2008

Rather than focusing on problems after our veterans return from combat, we should ensure the force is best prepared for the stress of fighting wars. This starts with recruiting; no one should be surprised that if we enlist criminals and antisocial people that will continue to commit crimes after they are discharged, or that if we throw money at recruits, we attract very desperate people whose goals are less about service to the country than about achieving some personal gain. With a sound population, we need to give them the tools to better deal with the stress of combat, just as we train them on how to deal with an enemy. Lastly, the DOD needs to focus on retention; keeping the best officers and enlisted is the only way to ensure the health of the service in these wars and the next. Limit tour lengths, stop offering ridiculous bonuses, and listen to them to find out what they really want and need.

Sent by Aaron Leong | 4:04 PM | 5-7-2008

Thank you for helping our veterans!!! This Administration should be embarrased about the way our soldeir are treated when they return from war!!!

When will this madness end???

Sent by pam lindsay | 4:14 PM | 5-7-2008

Ref: Vets in Trouble
I am a member of VVA and I find it so frustrating that we as a nation seem to re-invent the wheel with every war our troops fight! I'm encouraged that you are talking about the problems of PTSD and soldiers' problems readjusting to civilian life, but it is nothing new. The military and our medical professionals have known of PTSD since WWI at least, and yet we are still not prepared to care for our soldiers and veterans quickly and adequately?! It's not a national shame...it's a crime!
One thing I didn't hear mentioned in your program today is that PTSD is a NORMAL reaction to ABNORMAL and horrific circumstances. One would truly be insane not to be affected by war and its accompanying traumas.Please keep your focus on this topic as our troops deserve better treatment than they are presently getting. Our gov. seems to be very good at creating soldiers, but is not as good at caring for its injured veterans. We need to keep our politicians feet to the fire as the saying goes, and make sure they do right by those who give of their health & lives for the support and defense of this country.
Cathleen Cordova
Women's Overseas Service League
Past National President

Sent by Cathleen Cordova | 4:58 PM | 5-7-2008

Veterans in prison and jail do have different penal treatment needs based on service-related injuries, experiences, trauma, multiple deployments, extended tours, moral waiver recruiting standards and associated problems (homeless, substance abuse, domestic violence, PTSD, etc). Judge Russel's Veterans Court exhibits therapeutic jurisprudence and conviction. However, it is not the first of it's kind. There have been other diversion style programs for veterans. For example, the Domestic Relations Court in Pittsburgh, PA albeit this was for domestic violence abusers. But, the bulk of Judge Russels Court with be dv and substance abuse cases. There needs to be more. The tsunami wave for incarcerated veterans is coming. Another effort, under PL 107-95 was the Department of Labor (DOL) awarded $1M for 4 pilot programs under the President's Incarcerated Veterans' Transition Program (IVTP). The 4 grantees were: Volunteers of America (VOA) of Los Angeles Inc., CA; VOA of Kentucky Inc., KY; Joint Efforts Inc.,
San Pedro, CA; and Quad Area Community Action Agency, Hammond, LA. These demonstration programs, even with an 87% success rate were not refunded. All have been terminated, but their outcomes warranted sustained funding and staff. The problems with these diversion and employment concepts lies in support and sustainability. Also, there is not a uniform way to identify veterans, such as: 1) The recent national PEW report, "One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008" reports that for the first time in history more than one in every 100 adults in America are in jail or prison. Astonishingly this did not identify veterans, 2) the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) does not identify offenders with veteran status. According to their Inmate Skills Development System (ISDS), BOP, the data field for veterans is being implemented through an automated system. The ISDS will include a section to capture information to determine an inmate's veteran status. That system is projected to be activated in each institution by the end of FY 2008 and 3) many state prison and local county jails do not have an automated system either. This hinders reentry programming and identifying veteran's needs. Hence, these veterans have diverse levels of criminality, clinical needs and social problems that are likely to present significant community re-adjustment problems upon release. Judge Russel has the right concept, but society in general needs to get up off it's collective apathy and more thoroughly address the needs of those that have served our country. Herky.

Sent by Herky Joseph | 3:22 PM | 7-16-2008

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