WASHINGTON – Two former Iraq and Afghanistan War-era defense secretaries are recommending that the government consider new ways to ensure that military service is taken into account when courts prosecute former service members.
The Veterans Justice Commission, led by onetime Pentagon chiefs Chuck Hagel and Leon Panetta, offered that guidance after reports that a concerning number of veterans have been convicted of crimes since leaving military service.
The commission was tasked with examining the extent to which veterans are getting in trouble with the law, whether they are receiving appropriate transitional assistance when they no longer are in the armed services and how they are treated once they enter the criminal justice system.
Both Hagel and Panetta led the Defense Department during the Iraq War, which marks its 20th anniversary this month, and the Afghanistan War, which ended abruptly in 2021 when U.S. forces withdrew from Kabul.
Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, said many of the stressors his generation faced are similar to those for this new generation of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, except that the United States had never been in a 20-year long conflict and there were unprecedented demands that the multiple, prolonged deployments put on the relatively small pool of people who serve.
While most veterans transition into civilian life without incident, the commission found that as many as 1 in 3 of the nation’s 19 million military veterans have reported being arrested at least once in their lifetime, and that about 181,500 veterans are incarcerated and make up about 8 percent of the state prison population and 5 percent of the federal prison population.
For comparison, less than 1 percent of all U.S. adults volunteer to serve, according to the Pew Research Center.
Those risks for veterans are elevated by post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and substance abuse issues, the report said. "Once ensnared by the system, veterans often present a complex set of needs and risk factors that are distinctive from those characteristic of civilians without a military background. But multiple barriers prevent many veterans from receiving the targeted interventions they need,” the report found.
Instead of prison sentences, the commission has recommended that state and federal statutes should “create or expand judicial diversion,” which would establish alternative treatments that could potentially allow for reduced charges, to avoid conviction or have a sentence lowered.
Some of alternatives could include requiring veterans to enter and complete Veteran’s Treatment Centers programs that would allow them to address underlying issues that led to the criminal activity, and involving victims or family members to be involved in the supervision and treatment process of the veteran.
“These veterans who do get in trouble, we’re not saying that they don’t have a price to pay, and they’re not going to serve their time, and that they’re not going to pay for whatever offense they may have committed,” Panetta said during a virtual media briefing of the commission’s findings. “What we are saying is by virtue of the fact that they did serve in uniform, and that they are veteran, that there are interventions that can be made, that they’re entitled to, by virtue of being a veteran.”
The multiple deployments “do have some impact” on the likelihood of incarceration, said commission director Army Col. Jim Seward.
Beyond the prison alternatives, the commission is recommending that Congress should review how effective state and national databases are at identifying a person’s veteran status, and that military service and specifically combat exposure should be considered at sentencing, including in cases that involving violence.
“Too many veterans are ending up in our criminal justice system, and while they must be held accountable for their behavior, our nation has a responsibility to honor their service and help them address the factors that often drive them to break the law,” Hagel said.
This story was first published on March 2, 2023. It was updated on March 3, 2023, to correct that Col. Jim Seward is not retired and is the director of the commission.