One-Third of Vets End Up Arrested at Least Once. Researchers Want to Find Out Why.

Philadelphia police car with flashing lights.
Philadelphia police car with flashing lights in Philadelphia, Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

A criminal justice think tank has announced that it will try to study why veterans are ending up behind bars at far greater rates than those who never served. It will have help from two former defense secretaries.

The Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ), in its announcement Tuesday, explained that "roughly one third of veterans report having been arrested and booked into jail at least once in their lives, compared to fewer than one fifth of non-veterans."

In order to examine the causes of that elevated arrest rate, the think tank has put together a 15-member commission that includes "former defense secretary and White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, a former Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, the chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, [and] two formerly incarcerated veterans." It will be run by former U.S. Defense Secretary and U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel, the announcement added.

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According to a study from the Department of Justice, released in 2016, there were about 107,400 veterans in state or federal prisons that year; 98% were men and just over half served in the Army. The CCJ said that total has since risen to a total of 181,500 veterans.

The think tank explained that "the reasons underlying veterans' justice-system involvement are complex, ranging from combat-related risk factors to 'bad-paper' discharges that bar VA benefits," as well as "inconsistent diversion mechanisms."

In recent years, some efforts have been made to address the issue of discharges. Both the Army and Navy have said they will review thousands of them in an effort to upgrade those that stemmed from mental illness or brain injury. Those reviews, however, are the result of legal action by affected service members.

"Service-related trauma and other legacies of deployment push too many veterans on a path toward incarceration," Hagel said in the announcement. "We can and must do more to understand and interrupt that trajectory."

The commission plans to look at not only risk factors that drive veterans to run afoul of the law, but how well transition assistance programs work and what the justice system could do once veterans do break the law.

"Once in the system, many veterans do not receive targeted support to address their conditions, reducing the likelihood of successful reentry," the statement said.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

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