Often, learned military skills and tactics such as hyper-vigilance and rapid response to threatening encounters that enhance survival in combat may translate to aggressiveness, impulsivity, arrest, and potential for incarceration in the civilian community. Indeed, there is a growing prevalence of veterans entering our jails, state and federal prisons with criminal behavior stemming from military service-related mental health issues.
A recent movement to engage veterans with treatment over incarceration has developed, including Veteran Treatment Courts which allows the veteran to enter a treatment program in lieu of jail time. California also has Penal Code §1170.9 for veterans convicted of crimes for an offense in which the veteran alleges is as a result of post traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, or other psychological problems stemming from service in U.S. military combat. The court, prior to sentencing, determines the merits of the allegation and refers the veteran defendant to a local, state, federal, or private non-profit treatment program for a period not to exceed that which the defendant would have served in state prison or county jail. However, the penal code is not well-known and very little literature exists which provides information to public defenders and courts on the procedure.
At the root of the problem, which this NBC Bay Area news article highlights, is that most California counties fail to identify the number of veterans in their jails. Without routing eligible veterans to treatment, veterans are fast becoming casualties of the criminal justice system and aren’t getting treated for issues from their military service.
Compounding the issue, many veterans are committing violent crimes which unfortunately may bar their eligibility for veteran treatment programs. The success of any treatment program, in our opinion, rests on the ability to reach the target need. If veterans are engaging in violent behavior as a result of their combat trauma, then ending up in jail or prison, then they are not only going untreated but they are at further risk of increasing trauma. Violent cases should be examined on a case-by-case basis to determine eligibility and potential for treatment success. NBC highlights Santa Clara County Veteran Treatment Court, a model treatment court program which allows violent offenders. The veteran highlighted in the story committed a violent crime yet was able to go through the treatment court and get treated for his PTSD. This is a great example vet may not have been helped if he committed his crime in another county.
For more information on Veterans and Criminality, see our publication “Veterans and Criminal Justice: A Review of the Literature.”
Megan Klein Zottarelli, Policy Analyst
Megan performs research and analysis of legislation, data, and issues related to veterans such as criminal justice, housing, employment, women’s health, etc. Megan helps to create formal summaries and recommendations to lawmakers and key stakeholders to increase access to services and support for veterans and their families. She is especially interested in criminal justice issues among veterans as well as treatment alternatives to incarceration.