Four Solutions for Veterans in the Texas Justice System

Vietnam War Memorial with Nurse and Wounded Soldier
The Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) Justice for Veterans Campaign is a program to help those military veterans who:  

    -- are struggling with physical and mental health-conditions related to their service

    -- all too often find themselves struggling with the criminal justice system as well.

There is a significant correlation between incarceration and the mental  health conditions faced by veterans: 40% of veterans with PTSD symptoms  commit a crime after discharge from wartime service.  As a result,  veterans are severely over-represented in the criminal justice system:  nationwide, 10% of prison and jail inmates once served in the military,  the majority in wartime.

In 2011, the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) received a grant from the  Texas Access to Justice Foundation to help address the needs veterans  in the criminal justice system.  TCRP is working with existing  stakeholders and a network of pro bono attorneys to reach out to those  veterans before, during, and after their incarceration.

Standing on a Precarious Edge

Transitioning from military life to the civilian world can be a daunting  and stressful change under the best of circumstances.  And we are not  in the best of circumstances.  Significant numbers of men and women are  leaving military service today carrying burdens that are too great for  them to bear.

On October 7, 2001, the United States launched Operating Enduring  Freedom in Afghanistan.  Less than eighteen months later, on March 20,  2003, the United States launched Operation Iraqi Freedom.  A 2008 RAND  study estimated 1.64 million troops, up to that point, had been deployed  to support operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Today’s estimate exceeds  2 million.

Estimates vary regarding the number of returning vets who are suffering  from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury  (TBI), but none of them are good.  The same RAND study estimated about  31% of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffered from  either a  mental health condition (e.g. PTSD or major depression), TBI, or both.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an anxiety disorder that can occur  after exposure to traumatic events such as combat, natural disasters,  assaults or motor vehicle accidents.  Symptoms  can include nightmares,  flashbacks, intrusive memories, feeling numb and detached from people,  insomnia, irritability and hypervigilance.

Traumatic Brain Injury is caused by a bump, blow or jolt to the head or a  penetrating head injury that disrupts the normal function of the brain.   Symptoms of mild TBI can include headaches, poor concentration, memory  loss, sleep disturbances, and irritability-emotional disturbances.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), from 2002 to 2009,  1 million troops left active duty in Iraq or Afghanistan and became  eligible for VA care.  Of those troops, 46% came in for VA services.  Of  those Veterans who used VA care, 48% were diagnosed with a  mental  health problem.

Learn more below the jump.
 Slipping into a Vicious Circle

Today, one in ten of the people incarcerated in the United States are   veterans.  The majority of these veterans served in wartime.

There is a relatively high correlation between incarceration and the  mental health conditions faced by veterans.  For example, people  diagnosed with PTSD are 4.5 times more likely to be imprisoned for a  violent act, and 40 percent of veterans with symptoms of PTSD have  committed a crime after discharge from the service.

Once a person goes to prison, the mental health services available him  or her are, as a practical matter, very limited or non-existent.

“The Texas Civil Rights Project receives many letters from obviously  mentally ill prisoners.  Notable examples include the prisoner who sent  copies of ‘peace declarations’ between himself and the United States for  the Civil War, World War II, and Vietnam, [and] the prisoner who  threatened to sue the Project through the Intergalactic  Space Court . .  .  These are not prisoners in mental health treatment facilities.   These  are prisoners in top-security TDCJ units, receiving bare-minimum  mental health care that contributes little toward their rehabilitation.”

Even those veterans who do not leave prison with an untreated mental  illness will face significant obstacles to reentering society.  Having a  criminal record can make it very difficult to find either housing or  employment, and lacking either makes it difficult to find the other,  creating a vicious circle.

“‘A convicted felon is pretty much barred from public housing,’ said  [Danny] Sneed, a U.S. Army veteran.  ‘Even if you make great money, you  can’t live in a lot of apartment complexes because of your felony  conviction.’”

Lack of housing and employment for those recently released from  incarceration dramatically increases their chances of recidivism and  return to incarceration.

For those veterans whose mental illness needs are never addressed,  homelessness may well be the result.  One quarter (25%) of the people  who are homeless in the United States are veterans.  One third (33%) of  homeless men are veterans.  Almost all of them (89%) received an  honorable discharge, and over two-thirds (76%) experience problems with  mental health or addiction.

Solution: Veterans’ Courts

In 2009, the Texas Legislature authorized counties to create special  veterans’ courts.  Veterans’ courts are similar to mental health and  drug courts.  They are empowered to guide veterans through a strict  schedule of appointments for treatment, monitored with regular court  hearings, and to dismiss or reduce charges for veterans, who complete  treatment successfully.

The veterans’ courts statute is flexible, leaving room for local innovation.

Solution: Change Negative Discharge Statuses

Veterans’ benefits (which include healthcare, hiring preferences, and  student loans) can help formerly-incarcerated veterans surmount some of  the obstacles they face after prison, but only if they have been  honorably discharged.  Unfortunately, many of the same PTSD and TBI  symptoms that can bring a veteran into the criminal justice system can  also lead to a less-than-honorable discharge from the military.  The  phenomenon has been increasingly noted by advocates and the media.

“[Chuck Luther, Director of Disposable Warriors, a nonprofit group based  in Killeen near Fort Hood] says the military has begun a new strategy  with traumatized soldiers: let them go untreated until they can be  charged with misconduct.  ‘Instead of treating a soldier, they just  continue to pressure the soldier till they do something: go AWOL, harm  themselves, continue drinking and just don’t care anymore, coming in  late to work, becoming insubordinate.  Then they just kick them out for  misconduct.’”

Veterans need the help of persuasive advocates who can identify relevant  extenuating circumstances from the time of their discharge, and present  them in a compelling manner to administrative review bodies in the  military.

Solution: Medical Parole for the Elderly, Severely Disabled, and Terminally Ill

“Medically Recommended Intensive Supervision,” i.e. medical parole, is  available to inmates who are very old, terminally ill, suffer from a  chronic, severe disability, etc.

Among the inmates recommended for release by prison doctors, only 10%   are approved.  The hang-up is Government Code 508.146 (a)(2), which  prohibits medical parole unless “the parole panel determines that, based  on the inmate’s condition and a medical evaluation, the inmate does not  constitute a threat to public safety.”  The parole board refuses to  sign off on more than a tiny number of applications.

For the last few years, the topic has received a lot of coverage because  of the fiscal implications.  Our interest is humanitarian.  Too many  inmates, including many veterans, are not released to be with their  families despite being on the cusp of death or despite suffering severe  disabilities that aren’t being treated in prison.

Veterans need effective advocates.  The parole board deals with  countless applications, so to be successful, applications need to have a  clear, cogent, concise narrative explaining their medical circumstances  to a skeptical audience.

Solution: Help Veterans Receive Occupational Licenses

The stigma tied to a criminal record can make it very hard for former  prisoners to find jobs.  They often have an easier time when they can  enter a trade -- like being a plumber, an electrician, etc.

The state has the power to deny an occupational license to a person who  has been convicted of a crime with a nexus to the occupation.  However,  among the thousands of applications for occupations licenses that are  denied every year, often there is no connection between the crime and  the occupation.  This means many former prisoners are senselessly  restricted from gainful employment.

The Justice for Veterans Campaign is working to empower veterans to be  their own advocates regarding their fitness for the occupations to which  they wish to return after paying their debts to society in prison.

Please visit the TCRP website to see the Justice for Veterans' page with documentation and contact info:


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