The Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) Justice for Veterans Campaign is a program to help those military veterans who:
- — are struggling with physical and mental health-conditions related to their service
— all too often find themselves struggling with the criminal justice system as well.
There is a significant correlation between incarceration and the mental health conditions faced by veterans: 40% of veterans with PTSD symptoms commit a crime after discharge from wartime service. As a result, veterans are severely over-represented in the criminal justice system: nationwide, 10% of prison and jail inmates once served in the military, the majority in wartime.
In 2011, the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) received a grant from the Texas Access to Justice Foundation to help address the needs veterans in the criminal justice system. TCRP is working with existing stakeholders and a network of pro bono attorneys to reach out to those veterans before, during, and after their incarceration.
Standing on a Precarious Edge
Transitioning from military life to the civilian world can be a daunting and stressful change under the best of circumstances. And we are not in the best of circumstances. Significant numbers of men and women are leaving military service today carrying burdens that are too great for them to bear.
On October 7, 2001, the United States launched Operating Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Less than eighteen months later, on March 20, 2003, the United States launched Operation Iraqi Freedom. A 2008 RAND study estimated 1.64 million troops, up to that point, had been deployed to support operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Today’s estimate exceeds 2 million.
Estimates vary regarding the number of returning vets who are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), but none of them are good. The same RAND study estimated about 31% of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffered from either a mental health condition (e.g. PTSD or major depression), TBI, or both.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an anxiety disorder that can occur after exposure to traumatic events such as combat, natural disasters, assaults or motor vehicle accidents. Symptoms can include nightmares, flashbacks, intrusive memories, feeling numb and detached from people, insomnia, irritability and hypervigilance.
Traumatic Brain Injury is caused by a bump, blow or jolt to the head or a penetrating head injury that disrupts the normal function of the brain. Symptoms of mild TBI can include headaches, poor concentration, memory loss, sleep disturbances, and irritability-emotional disturbances.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), from 2002 to 2009, 1 million troops left active duty in Iraq or Afghanistan and became eligible for VA care. Of those troops, 46% came in for VA services. Of those Veterans who used VA care, 48% were diagnosed with a mental health problem.
Learn more below the jump. Slipping into a Vicious Circle
Today, one in ten of the people incarcerated in the United States are veterans. The majority of these veterans served in wartime.
There is a relatively high correlation between incarceration and the mental health conditions faced by veterans. For example, people diagnosed with PTSD are 4.5 times more likely to be imprisoned for a violent act, and 40 percent of veterans with symptoms of PTSD have committed a crime after discharge from the service.
Once a person goes to prison, the mental health services available him or her are, as a practical matter, very limited or non-existent.
“The Texas Civil Rights Project receives many letters from obviously mentally ill prisoners. Notable examples include the prisoner who sent copies of ‘peace declarations’ between himself and the United States for the Civil War, World War II, and Vietnam, [and]the prisoner who threatened to sue the Project through the Intergalactic Space Court . . . These are not prisoners in mental health treatment facilities. These are prisoners in top-security TDCJ units, receiving bare-minimum mental health care that contributes little toward their rehabilitation.”
Even those veterans who do not leave prison with an untreated mental illness will face significant obstacles to reentering society. Having a criminal record can make it very difficult to find either housing or employment, and lacking either makes it difficult to find the other, creating a vicious circle.
“‘A convicted felon is pretty much barred from public housing,’ said [Danny] Sneed, a U.S. Army veteran. ‘Even if you make great money, you can’t live in a lot of apartment complexes because of your felony conviction.’”
Lack of housing and employment for those recently released from incarceration dramatically increases their chances of recidivism and return to incarceration.
For those veterans whose mental illness needs are never addressed, homelessness may well be the result. One quarter (25%) of the people who are homeless in the United States are veterans. One third (33%) of homeless men are veterans. Almost all of them (89%) received an honorable discharge, and over two-thirds (76%) experience problems with mental health or addiction.
Solution: Veterans’ Courts
In 2009, the Texas Legislature authorized counties to create special veterans’ courts. Veterans’ courts are similar to mental health and drug courts. They are empowered to guide veterans through a strict schedule of appointments for treatment, monitored with regular court hearings, and to dismiss or reduce charges for veterans, who complete treatment successfully.
The veterans’ courts statute is flexible, leaving room for local innovation.
Solution: Change Negative Discharge Statuses
Veterans’ benefits (which include healthcare, hiring preferences, and student loans) can help formerly-incarcerated veterans surmount some of the obstacles they face after prison, but only if they have been honorably discharged. Unfortunately, many of the same PTSD and TBI symptoms that can bring a veteran into the criminal justice system can also lead to a less-than-honorable discharge from the military. The phenomenon has been increasingly noted by advocates and the media.
“[Chuck Luther, Director of Disposable Warriors, a nonprofit group based in Killeen near Fort Hood] says the military has begun a new strategy with traumatized soldiers: let them go untreated until they can be charged with misconduct. ‘Instead of treating a soldier, they just continue to pressure the soldier till they do something: go AWOL, harm themselves, continue drinking and just don’t care anymore, coming in late to work, becoming insubordinate. Then they just kick them out for misconduct.’”
Veterans need the help of persuasive advocates who can identify relevant extenuating circumstances from the time of their discharge, and present them in a compelling manner to administrative review bodies in the military.
Solution: Medical Parole for the Elderly, Severely Disabled, and Terminally Ill
“Medically Recommended Intensive Supervision,” i.e. medical parole, is available to inmates who are very old, terminally ill, suffer from a chronic, severe disability, etc.
Among the inmates recommended for release by prison doctors, only 10% are approved. The hang-up is Government Code 508.146 (a)(2), which prohibits medical parole unless “the parole panel determines that, based on the inmate’s condition and a medical evaluation, the inmate does not constitute a threat to public safety.” The parole board refuses to sign off on more than a tiny number of applications.
For the last few years, the topic has received a lot of coverage because of the fiscal implications. Our interest is humanitarian. Too many inmates, including many veterans, are not released to be with their families despite being on the cusp of death or despite suffering severe disabilities that aren’t being treated in prison.
Veterans need effective advocates. The parole board deals with countless applications, so to be successful, applications need to have a clear, cogent, concise narrative explaining their medical circumstances to a skeptical audience.
Solution: Help Veterans Receive Occupational Licenses
The stigma tied to a criminal record can make it very hard for former prisoners to find jobs. They often have an easier time when they can enter a trade — like being a plumber, an electrician, etc.
The state has the power to deny an occupational license to a person who has been convicted of a crime with a nexus to the occupation. However, among the thousands of applications for occupations licenses that are denied every year, often there is no connection between the crime and the occupation. This means many former prisoners are senselessly restricted from gainful employment.
The Justice for Veterans Campaign is working to empower veterans to be their own advocates regarding their fitness for the occupations to which they wish to return after paying their debts to society in prison.
Please visit the TCRP website to see the Justice for Veterans' page with documentation and contact info: