Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Is Data Doing Justice to our Veterans?

Below is the most recent installment, written by Soros Justice Fellow Guy Gambill, in JPI’s series on Veterans & Justice. Over the past four decades, too many veterans have returned home from war only to end up in our prisons and jails. This is often a result of their combat experience and our country’s inability to address the negative consequences associated with it. Returning veterans began playing a central role in the rise of the U.S. prison population following the Vietnam era; in 1986, 24 percent of all Federal prison inmates and 21 percent of those in State prisons were veterans. Early data indicates this pattern is repeating itself now as men and women return home from Iraq and Afghanistan. It doesn’t have to be this way. You can read the full essay here.

Following my own military service, I experienced homelessness and plenty of justice contact. In addition, I watched far too many other veterans live shattered lives, in many cases dying at far too young of an age. I had hoped to not see this happen again, but I am afraid, unless things change rapidly, it will be so. And while there are many fronts that need to be worked on, until we have accurate data on the scope of the problems our vets are currently facing, we cannot begin to come up with solutions.

In spring 2008, I was part of a group of veterans’ advocates, criminal justice professionals, federal employees and researchers gathered to brainstorm around what had become, by then, an issue of note: the large numbers of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who were experiencing some level of contact with our criminal justice systems. The product that resulted from this meeting was a policy brief entitled,Responding to the Needs of Justice-Involved Combat Veterans with Service-Related Trauma and Mental Health Conditions.” The brief noted that on any given day, nine out of 100 men in jail or prison is a veteran; this figure, it stated, was in line with the percentage of the general population that are veterans – that is, veterans were not over-represented in the justice system.

Coming up with an accurate statistical picture of what is really taking place should be one of the first tasks undertaken by any stakeholder confronting an issue. As an advocate for the many veterans who have ended up in prison or jail, it was difficult to believe that “by the numbers,” there was no reason to be concerned. This led me to ask, what do we really know about veterans’ justice system involvement? Rather than my being mistaken about what seemed to me to be a significant problem of veterans behind bars, could it be that the “facts” were wrong?

As I came to find out through my own digging, in this country we had very little in terms of a reliable national body of statistics in this area prior to 1981. It was in that year that the Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics published a report on veterans in prison in the form of a six-page bulletin. The bulletin noted no difference between incarceration rates for veterans versus members of the general population. The observation was later echoed in the press release issued prior to the release of the second DOJ report in 2000.

Click here to read this essay in its entirety.

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