Council on Criminal Justice: Seeking Liberty and Justice for All Veterans

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For more than a decade, red and blue states alike have worked to adopt a range of reforms that improve safety and justice. On the federal level, Congress has also made bipartisan progress on criminal justice, most notably with the First Step Act of 2018.

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

There are more veterans in U.S. prisons than total prisoners in all but 14 other countries.

Specialized courts that handle cases involving veterans with substance use disorders have begun to tackle that critical aspect of the challenge, but daunting problems such as lack of connections to critical services and access to benefits based on discharge characterization remain. Now, the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) is launching a full-scale initiative to document the unique issues facing veterans in the civilian justice system – and build consensus for reforms that enhance safety, health and justice.

In an interview with Philanthropy Roundtable, the project’s director, Col. Jim Seward, discussed the challenges and opportunities for progress.

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

A: We have come a long way from the widespread “broken veterans” horrors following the Vietnam War. But far too many veterans are incarcerated, and too few services are available to treat their behavioral health conditions, 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 problems through a multi-year research, policy development and communications initiative that spans the full scope of the system, from transition out of military service through reentry into 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 leaders. A research team will establish key facts and context to inform the committee’s discussions and shape its findings. Those findings will become actionable policy recommendations that we will aggressively disseminate to federal, state and local policymakers and practitioners, and to the media and the public. Although veterans have been involved in the criminal justice system in significant numbers since the post-Civil War era, there remains a dearth of rigorous research aimed at evaluating the effectiveness of efforts to address their unique needs as they transition back to civilian life. It’s time to change that – and elevate the issue in a national conversation.

Q: What has been the biggest obstacle in conducting this work?

A: The sheer magnitude of the issues. Diving into the work done by the Department of Defense to ease veterans’ transition from active service to civilian life, for example, is a massive lift. So is scoping out the work other federal agencies have done to care for veterans and treat their mental health needs and other challenges, and then getting a handle on various efforts underway at the state and local levels. This research is essential to understand the scope of work that is being done, what has worked and what is still relevant. Lack of data in other areas will be a further complication. For instance, identification of incarcerated veterans is not a uniform practice in state prisons and jails. While the Department of Veterans Affairs has an identification system available to law enforcement agencies, many don’t 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 make real change that can benefit veterans and their families.

Q: What is something surprising you have 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 roughly 181,500 were in local jails and prisons. Almost one-third of veterans have been arrested and booked 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 to benefit the men and women who have served our country. There’s been almost shockingly little research and policy work. There is a giant gap to fill.

Q: How can those interested in supporting your work help out?

A: This project requires robust data collection, research and considerable resources to communicate the findings to the right audiences at strategic moments. CCJ welcomes help from anyone who can share current research and other information that would support the project. In addition, we welcome help from financial partners to ensure our extensive investigation and deliberations succeed in improving the lives of veterans, their families and their communities.

If you are interested in helping accelerate this organization’s impact, please reach out to Philanthropy Roundtable Program Director Erica Haines or contact Col. Jim Seward, project director of The Veteran’s Justice Project at the Council for Criminal Justice at jseward@counciloncj.org.  America’s future is bright, yet dialogue, refinement of ideas and commitment to our country’s values and principles is fundamental to our future.

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