They went to war as soldiers, and returned home as prisoners. But now, as Matt's previously blogged, there's a growing movement for specialized courts that specifically reach out to veterans who break U.S. law. and risk of landing in jail.
It's a little-remarked-on fact, but here in the United States -- site of the world's largest prison system -- fully one out of 10 people incarcerated are also military veterans, over half of whom served during wartime. While such veterans have long gone ignored, Buffalo, NY and other cities are bucking the trend.
Yesterday, Philadelphia became the latest city to join that wave. The city inaugurated its Veterans Court (Pennsylvania's third), a forum designed to help veterans whose previous experiences may have impacted their life choices.
In many ways, the court doesn't look so different from any other, as an account in the Philadelphia Inquirer makes clear. The usual medley of DUI arrests, marital disturbances and cases of public drunkeness are considered, and there's a prosecutor and public defender.
But there's also a representative of the Department of Veterans Affairs there to ask defendants about their service, and about whether they qualify for government-given medical or mental benefits -- or are even aware of them. (Which many veterans are not.) Veterans who are accepted into the program receive referrals to Veterans Affairs care and are paired with a volunteer veteran mentor, who can help them through their criminal case and gain a more productive place in the civilian world.
Drugs and addiction account for a significant percentage of veterans' crimes: nearly half of vets in federal prison, for example, are locked up on drug charges. Fully 61% of veteran prisoners are dependent on or abuse alcohol or drugs. Meanwhile, cases of post-traumatic stress disorder -- many left untreated -- only compound the problem.
Veterans are not only well-represented in the U.S. prison system -- in fact, in some ways, they're over-represented. According to Bureau of Justice statistics, veterans who are incarcerated on drug offenses receive sentences that are, on average, one year longer than those of non-veterans incarcerated on the same charges.
By the time a veteran ends up behind bars, they've arrived there as the product of many failed systems, from Congress to the Department of Veterans' Affairs. (For a discussion of how the VA can better help veterans fight addiction and stay out of prison, check out the Drug Policy Alliance's recent -- and excellent -- report here.) But at least at one end of the chain, there are innovators like Philadelphia who are trying to help bring former soldiers home.
Photo Credit: US Army Africa