The Storm Has Arrived: Veterans in the Criminal Justice System

incarcerated-vets-350November 11 was set aside to honor those who have served their country in the various branches of the military. As usual, there were be speeches, ceremonies at cemeteries, visits to VA hospitals by politicians, sports figures and people in the entertainment industry, and the other rituals.   Unfortunately I’d bet no one mentioned veterans sitting in jails and prisons. There were no calls by those in power to address a kind of “storm” that has arrived all over the country.

Fortunately there are a few who have been “voices in the wilderness” who have, like weathermen everywhere, issued warnings of the storm. In the latest issue of the Justice Policy Journal, William B. Brown and his colleagues are once again giving us the forecast. Yet this is not really a “forecast”; rather it is a “warning” that the storm has arrived. The title is: “The Perfect Storm: Veterans, culture and the criminal justice system.”

Brown has given this warning on more than one previous occasion, in this journal and elsewhere. In 2008 he published “Another Emerging Storm: Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans with PTSD in the Criminal Justice System.” He followed this up in 2011with “From War Zones to Jail: Veteran Reintegration Problems.” Additionally he has written more about this issue in other publications, which are cited in the current issue.

In brief, what Brown has brought to our attention is the fact that those who have served in “war zones” in particular present a unique context that most people working in the criminal justice system – especially those in the courts – are clueless about. With few exceptions they are unaware of what military training does to the soldier. More specifically, they are unaware that the typical soldier eventually becomes unmeshed in what Brown refers to as a “Military Total Institution” (MTI) – borrowing what sociologist Erving Goffman introduced in AsylumsBrown expressed this concept as follows:

The initial aspect of military training begins with the extraction of the recruit’s civilian culture values, beliefs, and behavioral responses; replacing them with military culture values, beliefs, and acceptable behavioral responses. During the training process the recruit must comply with all of those military cultural aspects until the individual’s military contractual obligation expires (discharge), or in the event of his or her death. Principles and values acceptable within the civilian environment are generally not beneficial to the military milieu. On the other hand, a good soldier’s principles, which are artifacts of the MTI, are not always favorable to the civilian environment.

Continuing, Brown suggests that “Those who have not been exposed to the MTI or the military culture sometimes have difficulty appreciating the effectiveness of the principles. This is why it is crucial for those involved in the processing of veteran defendants to be culturally competent.” Unfortunately, with few exceptions, they are not yet “culturally competent.” After all, the DSM IV promotes the importance of cultural competence in the formulation of mental health diagnoses. Fortunately Brown and his colleagues have summarized the crucial differences between the civilian and military culture. They suggest that it is up to those in criminal justice, and well as those in mental health, to make a decision whether they want to be “bothered” with the issue of cultural competency,

An important feature of this article is that the authors make an attempt to ascertain exactly how many veterans are currently in the correctional system. One would think that this would be an easy task, but it is not and they explain why. One immediate problem is the fact that the latest national data are from 2004 – almost ten years old! At this time there were 153,000 veterans in state and federal prisons. They decided to do a survey on their own, selecting of a sample of 18 states and contacted their respective departments of corrections. They computed a rate of veteran incarceration per 100,000 veterans in the states’ population. They also examined the percentage of veteran prisoners compared to non-veteran prisoners.

What they found was very interesting, to say the least. They found that the states with the highest percentages of veteran prisoners were those that tended to have the fewest military bases, with the state of Oregon ranked first and Nevada second. They also reported two surveys (2007 and 2011) they did in the Marion County Jail in Salem, Oregon. They found that the percentage of incarcerated veterans almost doubled – from 5.49 percent to 9.85 percent. Most of them had been in the army and they had experienced some level of combat.

Randall_Shelden (1)One major issue that this article has exposed is the prevalence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among veterans who have been in combat. This has contributed to the uniqueness of veteran cases Brown and Stanulis have dealt with in the criminal justice system. Stanulis, a neuropsychologist, has worked with veterans returning from war since the early 1970s and has testified in countless criminal cases involving veterans diagnosed with PTSD

I have barely scratched the surface here. I would strongly encourage readers to not only take a close look at the current article by Brown and his colleagues, but also to read other articles on the subject.

Randall G. Shelden
Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Published by the LA Progressive on November 15, 2013
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About Randall Shelden

Randall G. Shelden is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice. He has contributed research and co-authored numerous CJCJ publications, including program evaluations and the influence of the criminal justice lobby in America. He has also authored numerous books.

Dr. Shelden is the co-editor of the on-line Justice Policy Journal and a Professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.