Recognizing Sacrifice and Restoring Honor: The Veterans Justice Act
In 2004, former Army Ranger Hector Matascastillo found himself in a PTSD-related dissociative flashback that led to an armed standoff with police. While the situation ended with no physical injuries, he faced felony assault charges that carried a lengthy prison term. Hector’s story is not uncommon. One-in-three US veterans report having been arrested, compared to one-in-five non-veterans. More than 180,000 veterans are incarcerated.
The uncommon aspect of Hector’s story, compared with the stories of many other justice-involved veterans, is the response. Instead of sentencing him to prison, a judge recognized Hector’s veteran status and service-related struggles and ordered him to serve two years of probation and receive treatment for his psychological injuries. Upon successful completion of his treatment and supervision, Hector’s felony charges were dismissed, and today he is a licensed social worker, completing his doctorate in psychology, and helping police de-escalate situations like the one he faced.
Hector’s story reveals what’s possible when our response to veterans encountering the criminal justice system is tailored to the unique challenges they face—tailoring exemplified by ALEC’s Model Veterans Justice Act. Passed this summer, this model policy represents a consensus approach among state legislators and leading military and criminal justice authorities, offering qualifying veterans like Hector opportunities to receive evidence-based treatment and supervision in place of less-helpful prosecution and prison.
Unfortunately, many veterans today lack such opportunities. While veterans’ treatment courts (VTCs) generally provide a similar treatment and supervision-centered approach, they exist in just 14% of U.S. counties. Moreover, nearly half of all VTCs deny access to veterans charged with violent felonies, despite evidence that service-related injuries increase the risk of violent behavior. The Veterans Justice Act addresses this lack of coverage by giving states the tools and guidelines to recognize and more appropriately address the hardships veterans face in every jurisdiction, offering them a productive pathway toward rehabilitation.
The Veterans Justice Act also ensures that when veterans are afforded this opportunity, they will receive treatment and supervision that will help keep them and their communities safe. Drawing on best practices from evidence-based models, such as drug courts, these reforms intervene in ways to meaningfully aid troubled veterans in addressing the roots of their criminal behavior. Legislatures can look to the Veterans Justice Act for guidance on how to embrace standards to allow for the proliferation of tested treatment and supervision strategies, ultimately reducing the odds that veterans with untreated conditions will inflict greater harm on their community and themselves.
If we fail to provide more veterans with this opportunity, it could have life-threatening consequences. Veterans are already 1.5 times more likely than the public to commit suicide. Justice-involved veterans, compared to veterans who avoid contact with the justice system, are twice as likely to attempt suicide. More research is needed, but this elevated suicide risk may be linked to many issues that are prevalent among justice-involved veterans, such as posttraumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and military sexual trauma. Notably, many of these same issues are also associated with an increased risk of violent behavior and recidivism among justice-involved veterans.
Across the country, local jurisdictions are prosecuting and imprisoning veterans while denying them the care and consideration they need and deserve. This is particularly troubling because in many cases, veterans’ criminal justice involvement is often due, at least in part, to their willingness to fight for their country. Moreover, our blanket prosecution of veterans not only does them a disservice but also jeopardizes the safety of the public they once fought to protect. By keeping veterans out of jail and prison and instead under supervision in their communities, reforms like the Veterans Justice Act ensure veterans can receive treatment designed to address their personal challenges – and provide them an opportunity to continue to benefit society at large. We urge states to take this pragmatic step to better serve their communities and honor the sacrifice of those who volunteered to defend our freedom.