Veterans Day 

Kenny. Ronald. Warren. Michael. All of these men served in our country’s Armed Forces. Between them, their service extended to all branches of the military and earned them several Purple Hearts and other distinctions. They served bravely and with courage, and we honor them and all veterans today.

Ronald, Michael, Warren, and Kenny are also prisoners and former prisoners. Roughly one in 12 people in America’s prisons and jails is a veteran. Often, they’ve ended up in prison because of behavior resulting from injuries and trauma sustained during service. Many are serving absurdly long sentences for low-level drug offenses, having turned to drugs as a way of coping with PTSD and adjusting to life after tours of duty. And almost always, they are forgotten on this solemn day.

Our message today is simple:

  • Judges need discretion at sentencing to consider the reasons our country’s veterans ended up on the wrong side of the law.
  • The evidence of America’s failed war on drugs is in heartbreaking relief when you consider the lives of veterans—who put their lives on the line for our country—now serving inhumane mandatory minimum sentences.
  • The service to our country of incarcerated veterans is no less appreciated because of your incarceration. You are not forgotten. Thank you for your service.

Some sobering facts to think about today:

  • More than 75 percent of incarcerated veterans received honorable discharges from the military.
  • An estimated two thirds of those serving prison sentences discharged from service between 1974 and 2000, a period spanning several wars including Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
  • Of the total number of persons incarcerated, about half were diagnosed with a mental disorder, frequently Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
  • Sixty-four percent of incarcerated veterans have been sentenced for violent offenses, as opposed to only 48 percent of other prisoners. (That single fact has resulted in both longer and harsher sentences for veterans.)

Some good news:

  • Overall, the veteran prison population has shrunk.
  • As both the Veterans Administration and the courts have begun to understand this particular issue, the situation for veterans has improved. The veteran prison population has dropped as the Veterans Administration works to provide outreach and support to returning vets, including the provision of Veterans Justice Outreach Specialist.
  • Probation officers and corrections staff are being trained to immediately identify veterans upon sentencing, and then to connect the veteran with a Veterans Justice Outreach Specialist who can advise and support the veteran.

Where to get help:

Planning for Your Release: A Guide for Incarcerated Veterans,” from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV). If you aren’t able to download this resource, you can request a copy of it by sending a letter to:

National Coalition for Homeless Veterans
1730 M Street NW, Suite 705
Washington, DC 20036

NCHV has a comprehensive list of resources for returning veterans, including information about state assistance and healthcare. You can also call toll-free at 1-800-VET-HELP. 

For general information for veterans’ benefits and services: https://www.benefits.va.gov/persona/veteran-incarcerated.asp

For more information on the Veterans Justice Outreach Initiative, and to find a specialist: www.va.gov/homeless/vjo.asp

For more information on housing and issues of homeless veterans: https://www.va.gov/homeless/

To learn about Veterans Treatment courts: https://www.va.gov/health/newsfeatures/20120216a.asp