Many Vets Get Lost in Criminal Justice System, Group Led by 2 Former Defense Chiefs Says

Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel appears to introduce nominee-to-be Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth at a Senate Armed Services Committee nomination hearing in Washington.
Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel appears to introduce nominee-to-be Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth at a Senate Armed Services Committee nomination hearing in Washington, May 13, 2021. (Andrew Harnik/AP File Photo)

A disjointed and haphazard system of programs and a lack of awareness are partly to blame for a staggering number of veterans getting arrested or otherwise having to deal with the justice system, a report from a criminal justice group that includes two former secretaries of defense said Thursday. 

After studying the issue for half a year, the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) released its findings and recommendations, including that criminal justice agencies need to do more to identify veterans and provide them with deferment or treatment programs.

"Right now, there are approximately 181,000 veterans in prisons in this country's jails," Chuck Hagel, a former defense secretary and the head of the commission behind the findings, told reporters. Hagel added that means "one out of every three [veterans] has either been arrested or booked on some charge" at some point in their lives.

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Hagel, and others on the 15-member commission that also included former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, said that the long history of the global war on terror also contributed to the high numbers of incarcerated veterans.

"We've had 20 years of nonstop war," Hagel said, before adding that this "means the same people keep going back and back and back multiple rotations."

"That ... has an effect on the men and women, their families." 

Jim Seward, the project director of the commission, explained that one of the key issues has been a lack of awareness of how many veterans are actually impacted.

Seward explained that, 45 years ago, President Jimmy Carter issued a presidential review memorandum on Vietnam-era veterans, noting, at the time, the lack of comprehensive information about imprisoned veterans. "I can assure you that remains true today," he added.

"Reliable estimates about who or how many are currently incarcerated -- they just don't exist," Seward said.

While the Department of Veterans Affairs maintains databases of former service members, Seward said that "usage of these systems is extremely low."

The group's research found that only nine of the nation's 18,000 law enforcement agencies and 11% of the 3,100 jails report using the VA databases.

Further complicating the issue is the fact that "veterans seeking assistance often confront a confusing and disjointed network of untested interventions," Seward explained.

"Once they're ensnared by that system, veterans have a very tough time to be able to get the kind of intervention they need in order to try to get back to a normal life," Panetta added.

During the press conference, the commission sidestepped questions about veterans who are arrested on extremism charges, a topic that has gained intense scrutiny after the riot of Jan. 6, 2021, that led to the arrest of more than 130 people -- roughly 13% of all defendants in the incident to date -- with some form of military background.

Panetta did note that the commission's recommendations were "not about privilege" or "special treatment." 

"It's about getting what they earned by virtue of having served this country," he said.

The commission also stressed that its findings are just the first in a series of three reports that it plans to release.

"Subsequent recommendations will examine problems veterans face during their transition from military to civilian life and challenges at the "back end" of the justice system, from incarceration through reentry," a press release said.

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

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