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Is Data Doing Justice to our Veterans?

Following my own military service, I experienced homelessness and plenty of justice contact. In addition, I watched far too many other veterans live shattered lives, in many cases dying at far too young of an age. I had hoped to not see this happen again, but I am afraid, unless things change rapidly, it will be so. And while there are many fronts that need to be worked on, until we have accurate data on the scope of the problems our vets are currently facing, we cannot begin to come up with solutions.

Author Guy Gambill and members of the Veterans' Initiative Center & Research Institute (VICTRI).

In spring 2008, I was part of a group of veterans’ advocates, criminal justice professionals, federal employees and researchers gathered to brainstorm around what had become, by then, an issue of note: the large numbers of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who were experiencing some level of contact with our criminal justice systems. The product that resulted from this meeting was a policy brief entitled, “Responding to the Needs of Justice-Involved Combat Veterans with Service-Related Trauma and Mental Health Conditions.” The brief noted that on any given day, nine out of 100 men in jail or prison is a veteran; this figure, it stated, was in line with the percentage of the general population that are veterans – that is, veterans were not over-represented in the justice system.

Coming up with an accurate statistical picture of what is really taking place should be one of the first tasks undertaken by any stakeholder confronting an issue. As an advocate for the many veterans who have ended up in prison or jail, it was difficult to believe that “by the numbers,” there was no reason to be concerned. This led me to ask, what do we really know about veterans’ justice system involvement?  Rather than my being mistaken about what seemed to me to be a significant problem of veterans behind bars, could it be that the “facts” were wrong?

As I came to find out through my own digging, in this country we had very little in terms of a reliable national body of statistics in this area prior to 1981. It was in that year that the Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics published a report on veterans in prison in the form of a six-page bulletin. The bulletin noted no difference between incarceration rates for veterans versus members of the general population. The observation was later echoed in the press release issued prior to the release of the second DOJ report in 2000.

I began looking to see if this data contained methodological flaws and/or possible oversights. The first consideration would be whether the Veterans population could be considered equivalent to the general population.  One salient difference that struck me was that people in the military were “pre-screened” prior to military service at point of enlistment or draft.   For instance, someone with a diagnosed serious mental illness – which we know to be correlated with more justice involvement in the general population – would have most likely not been eligible to serve.  And someone with serious prior justice involvement – another characteristic that makes a person statistically higher risk for future arrest or incarceration – also wouldn’t be accepted into the military. Given these significant differences in the two populations, incarceration rates between veterans and the general population should be expected to be different: veterans should be expected to have lower rates of incarceration.  That they reportedly have similar rates should have been of note.

Regarding the data itself, people are not required to declare whether they are veterans when they are arrested or become incarcerated.  We therefore have to date relied on surveys.  The DOJ-BJS 2000 and 2004 (released in 2007) surveys, done in conjunction with the U.S. Census Bureau, were based upon contact with one percent of all state and federal prison inmates. Of our more than 12,000 state and federal prison facilities, the surveys were conducted in a mere 254 facilities, the identify of which has not been released. This is a problem when one considers that in many states there may be facilities which take higher numbers of inmates who are veterans – for example, around military bases.  It is critically important to know in which prisons the surveys were conducted if we are to state with any degree of certainty a difference or similitude in incarceration rates between veterans and general population members.

A further set of concerns arises when we stop to consider what we mean by justice contact for veterans. Are we referring to federal and state prison inmates alone, or do we also include those locally incarcerated and those on probation and parole? What about arrests? The next DOJ-BJS survey is not slated to be conducted until the year 2013 and, based on the prior surveys, will probably not be publicly released until the year 2015. Needless to say, obtaining even a marginal understanding of the emerging picture for veterans in justice will come too late for far too many. Aside from the DOJ and BJS, the Veterans Administration is another possible source of information. However, to date there has been a level of resistance toward the release of any data-sets at all.

Finally, another array of concerns and questions arises around the issue of ethnic and racial statistics. During the Vietnam era, the percentage of “minority” service members within the totality of our Armed Forces was at 15%. In today’s Armed Forces, however, over 40% are soldiers of color. Despite a number of longitudinal studies conducted in the wake of Vietnam, which noted distinctive characteristics for minority population veterans – particularly with regard to such germane topical areas as a culturally-specific resistance to mental health care treatment and diagnosis – very little action has been undertaken to address the concerns raised. In terms of the statistical picture necessary to fully understand possible disparate justice involvement by veterans of color, in the DOJ-BJS Bulletin from 1981 it was noted that nine States did not distinguish between Hispanic-Latino and Caucasian veterans. In the latter surveys, it was noted that Latino veterans were incarcerated at a higher rate than Latino non-veterans, but failed to clarify whether the previously omitted data-sets from the aforementioned nine states were then included.

In addition, given the abiding racial disparities in our justice system, it is surprising that statistics indicate that Black veterans are incarcerated at lower rates than non-veterans. Yet no one is looking to see whether, for example, there is under-reporting of veteran status by African Americans (or whether, as noted earlier, those prisons surveyed may not have been representative).

In order to obtain answers to questions such as why better statistics aren’t available and who will look into what appear to be jarringly unexpected numbers, federal agencies need to be held accountable; and we can start with the Department of Justice.

Those within the upper echelons of DOD or the VA tend to downplay the numbers and the problem in general, often implying it’s just a few “bad apples.” More than 200,000 homeless veterans is not a minor difficulty. Nearly a quarter million veterans in our prisons is not a small problem. As is so often the case in contemporary America, those who are impacted by problems within a given focal area are very often in the least advantageous position to advocate on their own behalf; and not having the facts needed to push for better change is unconscionable.  For the hundreds of veterans’ families that have tried to help when their sons or daughters come home only to end up in a jail cell, these are not esoteric concerns or a far-removed research topic.  These men and women live the realities of lives that were put on the line at the nation’s behest and were subsequently forgotten. Of the perhaps 75 people calling the shots on addressing veterans in justice across a variety of organizations, two served in the military. None of them, to my knowledge, was ever justice-involved.

The incarceration rates for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans will exceed those of the Vietnam era easily. By 2015, without swift action, we can expect to see an influx of young veterans behind bars. Right now, a complex bureaucratic research and policy system is failing to deliver even the basic information needed to address these problems.  We can do better.  

Guy Gambill, a veteran of the armed services, will spend his 18-month fellowship advocating for alternatives to arrest and incarceration for veterans. Gambill most recently held positions as the Research and Policy Director at the Veterans Initiatives Center & Research Institute and as the Advocacy Coordinator for the Council on Crime and Justice, both in Minneapolis, Minnesota. An Army vet, Gambill did a tour of duty in Germany and received an Honorable Discharge in 1988. For his service, he received the Army Achievement Medal, Primary Leadership Development Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon, Good Conduct Medal, and Presidential Unit Citation.

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