Uniformed Services Justice & Advocacy Group

Veterans in Justice: The Failure to Define a Problem

The things that they tell you and the things that they don't


Washington, DC -- (ReleaseWire) -- 01/25/2016 --On December 7, 2015--Pearl Harbor Day--the Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics released its somewhat overdue national survey on veterans in prison and jail. The last national survey was conducted in 2004 and was released in 2007.

Veterans in Prison and Jail, 2011-2012 (released 2015)

The survey notes some characteristics surrounding incarcerated veterans, including;

- The number of veterans incarcerated in state and federal prison and local jail decreased from 203,000 in 2004 to 181,500 in 2011-12.
- The total incarceration rate in 2011 12 for veterans (855 per 100,000 veterans in the United States) was lower than the rate for non-veterans (968 per 100,000 U.S. residents).
- A greater percentage of veterans (64%) than non-veterans (48%) were sentenced for violent offenses.
- An estimated 43% of veterans and 55% of non-veterans in prison had four or more prior arrests, and
- 23% of incarcerated veterans received discharges under other than honorable conditions.

This latest survey of veterans in prison and jail raises many questions and concerns, some of which follow below.

In the last survey conducted (2004) it was noted that the gathering of veterans status data at the local level had proven problematic insofar as a majority of community correctional facilities did not inquire as to veteran's status at point of booking. With the advent of the veterans' courts it remains unclear as to how that salient barrier has now been overcome. Additionally, a number of State prisons were excluded in prior surveys due to arrangements with State Institutional Review Boards (IRBs). If you ask the "why" of that and request a listing of excluded facilities you will be told that HIPAA regulation prohibits the Department of Justice from releasing aggregated data which, if used in conjunction with other data-sets, might identify individual inmates. This makes little sense as in most states anyone can simply go on Department of Corrections or County Jail web-sites type in a name, perhaps a birth-date and you easily find out if an individual is an inmate. As a slate of higher court decisions have ruled that an individual convicted of a crime has no substantial right to an expectation of privacy it is hard to fathom why such a position might be deemed tenable. Yet if you ask for a listing of facilities excluded from the national surveys this is the reason that will be given for non-disclosure.

Why is it important to have a full listing of excluded facilities? Firstly, if there's any evidence that there might be some level of preference for the sentencing of veterans to specific facilities within a given State DOC and those facilities are among those omitted, the survey cannot be deemed accurate. Secondly, if veterans are more highly represented among specific categories of offenders and those categories are also routed to categorically-specific facilities and those facilities were then excluded validity again might be questioned. Given the rise of the Veterans Treatment Courts, Veterans Sentencing Mitigation legislation and a number of other programs and legislation targeting veterans at the intersection of justice it would seem likely indeed that at least some facilities would preference veterans for sentencing. Without clarification of such points the survey's validity remains suspect.

There are other problems: For example, the National Survey of Inmates was conducted under the umbrella of data collection around the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). It is a victimization survey. How that was done and what it might mean in terms of garnering participation from incarcerated combat veterans might also be considered problematic.

The next problem that arises on review of the national survey resides in a lack of contextualization. There has been a decrease in the number of people in prison over the course of the last four years and the very modest decrease in veterans should be viewed as part of that general decrease. There has also been a decrease in veterans in relation to the general population yet the survey also fails to provide sufficient comparative detail for us to understand the statistical picture presented: That 8% of prison inmates in 2011-2012 reported being veterans during the conduct of the survey.

Incarceration in prison and jail is one aspect of justice-involvement among any sub-population, including veterans. That 8% of prison inmates are veterans cannot be said to represent the totality of justice involvement among the population. The other, far greater, portrayal of justice-involvement would be captured by arrest data. If 8% of all those incarcerated in prison were veterans in 2011-2012 does it follow that we might extrapolate that data into the realm of arrests?

How many people were arrested in the United States in 2012? According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, 12,196,959;


If 8% of all arrests were military veterans then veterans among the total arrested during 2012 would be 975,757. Indeed, data captured in community correctional facilities across the country would support the position that 8% of arrests would have been military veterans. Perhaps fewer veterans are not justice-involved. Perhaps fewer are ending up in jail or prison, in keeping with national trends. They are being arrested and diverted, perhaps, but they are still justice-involved. This trend takes offenders for non-violent offenses and targets them for diversion away from jail and prison and into community correctional programs, but they remain justice-involved. In the 1970s and 80s, for instance, those veterans arrested for controlled substance possession charges may very well have gone to prison or jail whereas now they are diverted away from incarceration.

Why would such an assertion make sense? Well, because numerous studies tell us that is taking place--including those working in and around the Veterans Treatment Court programs, for example.

There's another interesting bit of information within the national survey. The Department of Justice notes that Military prisons such as that at Ft. Leavenworth were excluded from the survey. Ft. Leavenworth holds 3,646 inmates, not all of them military prisoners.


Leavenworth is one of many military detention and correctional facilities, including a number that are extra-territorial. A number of researchers on the topic of military-veterans and justice interaction have held that an all-volunteer military, in contradistinction to the Vietnam era, would experience lesser rates of incarceration. Then we need to ask why it would be necessary to expand the capacity and facility at Ft. Leavenworth as the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) announced in 2011;


If we wish to take the position that an all-volunteer military experiences lesser rates of incarceration or justice involvement then that position remains untenable until we are given full information on the numbers held in military detention facilities and prisons. Without that information and historical data-sets to place our understanding in context, it is absurd to forward the position that rates of justice-interaction for an all-volunteer force are lower.

The Uniformed Services Justice and Advocacy Group maintains an interest in a sub-population within this broad swathe of considerations: veterans who have received discharges under less than honorable conditions. According to the 2015 national survey 23% of incarcerated veterans listed discharges under less than honorable conditions--and discharges under general, honorable, conditions were counted in the 77% of those with Honorable Discharges. It might be said that 23% is a significant number. In veterans' courts, across the nation, similarly high numbers of participants reported discharges that were under less than honorable conditions.

How does this sub-population look in terms of the Global War on Terror (GWOT)? Daniel Zwerdling, Dave Philips and the Center for North American Studies (CNAS) were able to access this information. During the period 2004-2011, the United States Army Honorably Discharged 419,718 soldiers. Soldiers, during the same period, who received discharges under all other conditions numbered 162,909. It's a colossal number. Now if 55% of all veterans in prison served in the Army and a quarter of them had such discharges this number should prove disconcerting, should it not? Again, the DOJ-BJS and a slate of researchers taking the position that justice-interaction, whether it be military or civilian, occurs at a lesser rate within the ranks of an all-volunteer military would seem quite odd.

On November 4, 2015 a National Public Radio\Colorado Public Radio investigation into the improper discharge of 22,000 Army personnel and a subsequent call by 12 US Senators for an investigation into the matter;


The Surgeon General, following the NPR coverage and the call for an investigation by the aforementioned US Senators, indicated that processes for undue separation would be amended and corrective action undertaken. Nonetheless, considerable soldiers continue to report that the same unjust actions are being utilized.

This coverage stemmed directly from the work of the Uniformed Services Justice and Advocacy Group;

Uniformed Services Justice and Advocacy Group

In the wake of the NPR\CPR coverage, the Uniformed Services Justice and Advocacy Group (USJAG) has been inundated with calls from soldiers and veterans across the nation who have served in combat, often on successive deployments. These are men and women who, following their return home, experience some level of justice interaction stemming from the invisible wounds of war and who are facing--or have faced--improper separation from military service. The practices and problems continue.

While a rather wide slate of organizations deal with veterans at the intersection of justice continue their work with copious levels of funding, the national leader in the realm of advocacy on behalf of those unduly separated from military service continues to operate in a largely unfunded capacity.

The Uniformed Services Justice and Advocacy Group sincerely welcomes the opportunity to tell the American public the rest of the story. Here we are again, dealing with a problem ill-defined and ill-addressed....to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. This represents another instance of seeing a problem as we wish it was, rather than seeing it for how it really is. The fact remains, a considerable segment of combat veterans who experience some level of justice interaction are simply shunted aside and forgotten.