One-Third of Military Veterans Have Been Arrested. To Help, We Need to Identify Them at the Justice System's Front Door.

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The 20th Fighter Wing courtroom
The 20th Fighter Wing courtroom contains all the facilities of a civilian courtroom including a jury box, witness stand, stenographer station and a gallery for those observing the trial. (Daniel Blackwell/U.S. Air Force)

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Raised in a small Alabama town, I signed up for the Air National Guard right after high school, intending to earn money for college and to see the world. My time in the Guard exposed me to new experiences and taught me the value of service and, after six years in the military, I thought I could handle anything that came my way.

But then I was sexually assaulted, and I became lost. Overwhelmed by trauma, I turned to drugs to escape. I left the military, and my addiction deepened, overtaking every facet of my life. At 29, I was arrested for a drug-related crime and sent to prison.

The shame I felt over my crime and incarceration was all-consuming. I'll never forget reading the title on my indictment, United States of America vs. Carla Bugg. I felt I'd forfeited any right to be recognized for my service, and I was pretty sure the military didn't want anything more to do with me.

What I didn't realize was just how many veterans become incarcerated. One in three of our 19 million veterans report having been arrested and booked at least once, and roughly 181,500 are behind bars. Many land there because of struggles with PTSD, traumatic brain injuries or substance use disorders, risk factors that make the jarring transition from military service to civilian life all the more challenging.

I now work at an agency that helps people leaving prison or jail by connecting them with treatment and jobs. Like me, many veterans I meet feel they disgraced the uniform when they committed their crime. And like me, most did not mention their veteran status when entering the criminal justice system. What's odd, however, is that nobody ever asks.

That oversight can have major consequences, and it's not a new problem. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter issued a memo noting that "we lack comprehensive information about imprisoned veterans" and directing federal agencies to collect accurate data. Sixteen years later, Congress began requiring that states have a policy for identifying the veteran status of people in prison in order to be eligible for certain grants. Unfortunately, these attempts never brought about much change.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has developed tools to help law enforcement, jails and courts verify a person's veteran status, but they are rarely used. Just nine of 18,000 police agencies in the U.S. and 11% of 3,100 jails use the systems.

Further complicating the identification challenge is an inconsistent definition of the term "veteran." The federal government, the states, criminal justice agencies and individual programs for veterans all differ in the specific criteria they use to determine who is, and who isn't, a veteran. Length of military service and type of discharge are among the conflicting variables.

All of this adds up to a big problem: Too many veterans fail to receive targeted treatment for their unique set of problems while incarcerated, and many who might qualify for special treatment courts or other opportunities to be diverted away from jail or prison never get the chance. Without proper interventions to address their PTSD, addiction or other challenges, many veterans struggle as they reenter society -- and some commit more crimes. That's bad for individuals and for public safety, as well.

I witness the fallout from this cycle every day in my work, and my frustration is one reason I joined the Council on Criminal Justice's Veterans Justice Commission. Our panel, led by former Defense Secretaries Chuck Hagel and Leon Panetta, both veterans, is examining why so many veterans land in prison or jail, and developing recommendations to help change that trajectory.

This month, we released our first proposals for action, addressing problems veterans face at the front end of the justice system, from arrest through sentencing. Improving the identification of veterans when they encounter the system is one of them. We also recommend expanding access to veterans treatment courts and increasing other opportunities for veterans to avoid prosecution, conviction or incarceration if they complete programs requiring them to take responsibility for their actions and address issues underlying their criminal offenses. Finally, we're urging the federal government to establish a National Center on Veterans Justice to fund badly needed research and coordinate veteran support across the country.

As I know well, veterans who end up in our justice system face a special struggle, one overlaid with shame over breaking the laws of a nation they once fought to protect. By identifying veterans at the front door of the justice system, and getting them the treatment they need, we can reduce crime and do better by those who have served.

-- Carla Bugg is a certified recovery support specialist, a military veteran, and a member of the Council on Criminal Justice's Veterans Justice Commission.

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