Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Veterans in Our Jails

I came across a sad and troubling statistic the other day. But it's one that is already spurring action at the local level, and that could become an opportunity for progress in dealing with jail overcrowding, reducing recidivism, and lowering costs.

Across the country, we all know that too many veterans come home facing challenges the rest of us don't have to grapple with. Some have life-altering injuries and scars--both physical and psychological. Many face acute mental health issues and substance abuse. Some end up homeless, and some even sit in our jails, or cycle through them again and again. At the conference I attended for county officials across our country, this was an issue that got a lot of attention.

Hamilton County faces these same issues. Most strikingly, our Court's pretrial services department recently informed me of the following numbers:

- on a one-day snapshot (July 23, 2008), 99 veterans were in our jails (out of 1945 total), including 5 who were active duty, and 9 who were medically discharged;

- from January 1, 2008 through June 30, 2008, 1125 veterans went through our jails (out of 23,009 total cases), including 26 active duty, and 53 who had been medically discharged. 973 had been honorably discharged;

- sadly, of those 1125, 217 were identified with a mental health issue, 642 with substance abuse, and 205 with both.

The sheer number of veterans going through our system was startingly high. The number who face substance abuse and mental illness hurdles also was alarming.

The challenge here is that we can and must do something, particularly to help those non-violent offenders who are cycling through largely due to a substance abuse or mental illness issue. The opportunity is that due their veteran status, there are far more opportunities to help these individuals, thanks to the benefits they have earned through their service and access to places like the VA. (If we do this the right way, like the medicaid issue, we can avert County taxpayer costs by ensuring that as many costs as possible are picked up by veteran services and benefits).

I have asked our pretrial services department, through our new reentry initiative, to get organized to solve this issue. First, we will work to verify every veteran coming through the front door of our justice system. Working with other agencies, including the VA and the Veterans Service Commission, we will then identify those for which diversion is a viable option (for violent crimes, it will not be) as opposed to jail, and if there are veteran-focused services out there that could help steer the veteran to the treatment they need and a better path over the long haul. (Hopefully, the bill for such services will be covered by veterans' benefits, as opposed to the County-cost that is incurred through a jail term). There are other options we also will be looking at, including for those who ultimately serve a sentence but still re-enter the community thereafter.

Like everything else, we'll do this work carefully, with public safety as our top priority. But if we do it right, we can save local taxpayer dollars, reduce crime and recidivism, and help improve the lives of many who served this country.


revitilization said...

Good research and plan of action. These folks have given their life for our country and do deserve to be cared for via the VA benefits. Saving tax dollars, county costs and improving public safety are key to the success of ALL county/city initiatives.

Anonymous said...

Again, very insightful.

The Veteran's Service Commission in Cincinnati - sucks!!!! (Remember the I Team report?). There system of approving vets for services is antiquated. They only make a decision on a case, at most, once a week. They are extremely tight with "their" money. African Americans might as well skip it - it is a haven of racism.

The VA Center, on the other hand, is extraordinary. In a recent addictions class, the professor (who audits treatment facilities) said the VA's program is the best in the region and the only facility locally that has any in patient detox.

The "Dom" or Domicillary located in Northern Kentucky serves Ohio vets. It has a great inpatient transitional housing unit that provides shelter, food, medical and dental care, and stipend paid work. Vets can stay for up to a year for addicts/alcoholics after care.

One problem with the Dom is they will no longer accept vets who have pending criminal cases - that NEEDS to be fixed.

Also, a problem with the Mental Health Court is that they don't take violent crimes (I think). Peculiar is that threatening suicide is considered a violent crime - so those who need intervention over incarceration are not permitted to have their cases go to Mental Health Court and have their charges dismissed for compliant help. This seems utterly ridiculous.

(I'd love a response on these issues)

Excellent work Pep, uncovering all these opportunities to save money

Anonymous said...

By the way, check out how many vets are living in the homeless shelters run by JFS. The VAdministration should be footing some of that bill too.

David Pepper said...

All very helpful comments. I will follow up on these good suggestions.

On the mental health court (second commenter), we are working to create one at the felony level, which would allow more serious cases to flow through.

Anonymous said...

Get industry to stop their insulating tactics. I personally observed a younger man who I was trying to help get work, go into an entry level interview/workplace tour and not get hired. I had to submit all his info from my computer which was the only way they allowed an applicant access. He wasn't hired despite the job remaining posted. The job would've been one where the industry could take some responsibility to help the disenfranchised get work. They unfortunately did not. He could've walked to work as well which is important with no auto. I never got one call as a listed reference.

Our leaders need to convey this so industry can become solutions to vet issues and also for those looking to improve their current, unproductive situations.

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