3 reasons returning U.S. veterans end up in prison

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New research identifies the main contributors to criminal justice involvement for veterans.

“In order to improve prevention efforts, it is important to examine why veterans are entering the system and being jailed…”

Military veterans currently account for 8 percent of the national prison and jail population, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. It is unclear, however, how many veterans are under community supervision or involved community-intervention programs, and little data exist that illustrates how veterans enter the criminal justice system.

Information from this research could help policymakers reduce arrests and prevent incarcerations.

“We need a better understanding of what factors might be contributing to veterans’ incarcerations,” says Kelli Canada, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Missouri.

“In order to improve prevention efforts, it is important to examine why veterans are entering the system and being jailed, and we did that by exploring participant perspectives on what led to them getting in trouble,” she says.

Canada worked with Clark Peters, an associate professor of social work, to interview veterans who were on probation or parole about their perspectives of the causes and contributors to their criminal justice involvement. The researchers analyzed data within and across interviews to identify meaningful themes.

1. Alcohol and Drugs

Although alcohol and drug use is quite common among those in prison, veterans reported distinct differences leading to their problematic use. Participants reported that their substance use was caused or exacerbated by trauma encountered in the military, difficulty adjusting to civilian life, and relational stress with friends and family.

2. Difficulty Adjusting to Civilian Life

During the interviews, researchers found that adjusting to civilian life was hardest for people who could not find meaningful work or yearned for structure and accountability inherent in military service. Veterans says they often struggled with considerable differences between military and civilian culture, and that this tension led to getting into trouble.

3. Economic Disadvantages

Participants attributed their criminal justice involvement to being homeless, without work or resources, or generally unable to pay bills and manage financial affairs. For some participants, adjusting to a new economic reality was a reason for economic hardship. Rather than adjusting to the differences in pay and lifestyle, some veterans took illegal actions, such as theft, to compensate for the pay gap.

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“Knowledge gained from this study will help arrest-prevention programs that target military veterans with and without veterans’ benefits,” Canada says.

“Understanding why veterans are getting in trouble will help policymakers and social workers help veterans navigate the personal and relational changes they experience as they transition to civilian life.”

The study appears in the Journal of Qualitative Criminal Justice and Criminology.

Source: University of Missouri