On Veterans Day, as heroism in combat is honored, recognizing the hard road home for some servicemen can be as important. Veterans are disproportionately represented in American prisons and jails. Many struggle with mental illness and substance abuse. Once in the criminal-justice system, they often get cut off from the services for which they are eligible through federal and state veteran affairs agencies. In the spring, though, Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian signed on to a first-in-the-nation partnership with the US Department of Veterans Affairs to identify these men and women and connect them with the help they need.
Veterans often don’t self-identify when they enter the criminal justice system. They worry about being mischaracterized as more violent or feel ashamed. Veterans serving time for felony charges also lose many of their VA benefits while incarcerated; many don’t know at least some of those funds can be transferred to their spouses or children.
In Middlesex County’s intake process, only 23 veterans identified themselves as such, but the federal database found nearly three times that number. Those 45 additional inmates were offered peer counseling, group therapy, and preparation for services on release, including assistance in finding a place to live, medical and psychiatric help, and even job counseling. Veterans awaiting trial were offered legal advice, including, in some cases, placement in jail diversion programs.
Inmates spend, on average, 234 days, or less than one year, in jail or prison in Middlesex County. Connecting them to services while they are in the system will likely lead to fewer returning.
Kevin Casey, the federal VA coordinator behind this innovative approach, says the state Department of Corrections and sheriffs in Norfolk, Worcester, and Essex counties have all expressed interest in replicating it. It should be seen as another, novel way to honor veterans’ service.