Written by Lisa Chedekel
When the state Department of Veterans’ Affairs recently advertised a job opening for a veterans’ service officer, 73 veterans applied, many of them younger men and women who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While they came from different backgrounds and zip codes, many had a common trait, Veterans’ Affairs Commissioner Linda Schwartz said: “They are wound tighter than a clock. They’ve deployed two or three times, had a successful military career, and now here they are home, struggling with the aftereffects, looking for jobs. . . We are seeing a large group of people who are really on the edge.”
Some of those people—more than 1,000 a year, according to estimates—have landed in Connecticut’s criminal justice system, often charged with lower-level crimes such as DUI, disorderly conduct or breach of peace.
Starting this month, Connecticut will follow a number of other states in beginning a program aimed at identifying veterans who are arrested for minor crimes and diverting them from jails to treatment. The state’s initiative has an unusual twist, allowing veterans to use the Accelerated Rehabilitation (AR) program twice, rather than just once. AR allows low-risk defendants to complete community treatment programs and avoid prosecution.
“It’s a really important change for a group of people who can benefit from services already in place,” said Margaret Middleton, executive director of the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center, which worked with the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School to lobby for the veterans’ bill.
“Given the high incidence of PTSD and stress that our veterans are experiencing, we’re concerned that their first introduction to the mental health system should come before incarceration, where possible.”
The new diversion program coincides with a national study showing that Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who have anger and irritability associated with combat trauma are more than twice as likely as other veterans to be arrested. The new study of a national sample of nearly 1,400 combat veterans found that while 9 percent overall reported being arrested since returning home from deployments, 23 percent of those with high irritability connected to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) reported being arrested.
“Clinicians should be aware that veterans with PTSD who report very frequent symptoms of anger and irritability may be at increased risk of engaging in criminal behavior,” the study, published this month in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, concludes. The research team, led by the University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill School of Medicine, also noted strong correlations between criminal behavior and factors not related to military service, such as a troubled family background or history of substance abuse.
The researchers recommended that the courts and VA outreach programs “routinely recommend interventions targeting symptoms of anger and irritability.”
In Connecticut, which has more than 245,000 veterans, 16,000 who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the new initiative will allow defendants to access supervised diversion programs, which offer mental health treatment, without requiring that they have a formal psychiatric diagnosis. As veterans are identified as eligible, court support officers will work to connect them with existing drug-treatment programs and other services offered through the VA, the Connecticut Department of Veterans Affairs and the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. That process has already started, with the diversion rules taking effect Oct. 1.
In 2008, Connecticut was one of six states awarded a federal grant to establish a jail diversion program for veterans with trauma-related symptoms that contributed to their criminal behavior. Pilot diversion programs have been established in the New London, Norwich, Danielson and Middletown court districts.
Schwartz said the new legislation comes after four years of failed attempts to establish statewide veterans’ diversion programs or special veterans’ courts, which are in place in other states. Veterans’ courts are typically separate dockets for defendants who are veterans and have legal issues related to PTSD, such as drug addiction or mental illness. There are now more than 95 such courts in 27 states, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP).
Schwartz said that while special courts are one approach, the new legislation means “every court in Connecticut is now empowered to be a veterans’ court.”
She said she has been concerned about reports of younger veterans engaging in “thrill-seeking behaviors,” such as reckless driving, vandalism and petty larceny. “We’re seeing a lot of the low-level stuff—substance abuse, DUIs, speeding, breach of peace. Some of these veterans don’t have any idea it’s connected to their (military) service.”
The majority of combat veterans are not diagnosed with PTSD, and most are never arrested. But for those who do have the disorder, past studies have shown a correlation with arrest rates. For example, research has shown that 50 percent of Vietnam combat veterans with PTSD have been arrested at least once.
The diversion initiative is expected to save the state $1.2 million in fiscal year 2013, and $2.5 million in the following year, largely because treatment is cheaper than incarceration, according to the Office of Fiscal Analysis
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