(John Ehlke/West Bend Daily News, via Associated Press)
Today we want to update you on an important new development in Californian legislation related to sentencing of veterans. This legislation reflects a growing awareness about the links between mental illness, crime, and incarceration. On Veterans Day we wrote about the fact that people who have fought for their country often come home with PTSD and mental health issues, but little to no support or services. Many end up homeless and then in the criminal justice system. The numbers are staggering: there are approximately 700,000 veterans in US prisons and jails; since 2004, the number of veterans treated for mental illness and substance abuse has increased 38 percent; unemployment for male and female veterans is consistently higher than for non-veterans, at 9.6% and 8.8% respectively and nearly 58,000 veterans are estimated to be homeless on any given night. Change cannot come soon enough.
A new bill recently passed in the California Assembly, AB2098, which is headed for the Senate, aims to change the current state of affairs for veterans. It urges judges to grant probation and give shorter prison terms to veterans charged with crimes who have mental health issues as a result of their years of active service. This bill is significant because it recognizes the complex needs and challenges facing our veterans – that all too often, they return home with emotional and physical scars that are left unaddressed. Research has shown that PTSD is prevalent among veterans: one in five returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from the condition. The author of the bill, Democrat Marc Levine of San Rafael cited as a basis for this bill evidence linking Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the likelihood of a criminal record among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
California law already requires judges to take into account a defendant’s military service and assess to what extent PTSD or any other conditions or illnesses could be a factor in the crime. This bill goes much further. It would require judges to impose shorter sentences for veterans who qualify, or grant probation under which veterans would be required and able to seek treatment for their condition. The bill is now headed to the California Senate.
This bill is just one of several recent bills across the nation that address the special circumstances and needs of veterans. In Georgia this week, Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law Senate Bill 320 which addresses treatment needs of veterans and aims to ensure their re-entry into society is systematic and successful. The first veterans’ treatment court in the country was established in 2008 in Buffalo, N.Y and now there are 130 around the country. At the first national Vet Court Conference held in December 2013, the VA Secretary, Eric Shinseki spoke powerfully of the need to break the cycle between incarceration and homelessness for vets, calling for change and collaboration. He said, “we will have to raise our level of collaboration and leverage all our assets to address these factors, which seem so pervasive when dealing with troubled Veterans—depression, insomnia, substance use disorder, pain, failed relationships.”
We at Root & Rebound believe these reforms are the right way forward for our country to move away from harsh sentencing and instead to focus on re-entry and rehabilitation. We are always excited to see legislation that seeks to address the underlying causes of crime and sets forward for remedies to avoid the cycles of incarceration, rather than the solution of “lock people up and throw away the key.” And veterans need our support; as the Vet Court Conference so aptly put it, “Veterans have fought for our freedom, now it’s our turn to fight for theirs.”
The R & R team
To find out more about the AB2098 bill and how you can support it, please check here.
To support the bill, call your State Senator! To find your State Senate representative, you can search here.
To read more on the topic, see this article.
Treatment Advocacy Center, The Treatment of Persons with Mental Illness in Prisons and Jails, 2014. See an executive summary here and the full report here.