Defying Stereotypes, Number Of Incarcerated Veterans In U.S. Drops

Dec 7, 2015
Originally published on December 8, 2015 2:29 pm

The number of military veterans in the country's jails and prisons continues to drop, a new report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows.

It's the first government report that includes significant numbers of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and the findings defy stereotypes that returning war veterans are prone to crime.

The data show that veterans are less likely to be behind bars than nonveterans. The study tracked an estimated 181,500 incarcerated veterans in 2011-2012, 99 percent of whom were male. During that period, veterans made up 8 percent of inmates in local jails and in state and federal prisons, excluding military facilities.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics began tracking the number of incarcerated veterans after the Vietnam War. In 1978, about 24 percent of prisoners were veterans. That number has fallen steadily since then, as the military switched from the draft to an all-volunteer force. In 1998, veterans had nearly the same incarceration rates as those who never served, and the number has been declining ever since.

Those veterans in prisons and jails reported higher rates than civilians of mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Less than a third of veterans behind bars actually saw combat, but those who did also reported higher rates of mental health issues, according to the report.

On average, veterans doing time are almost 12 years older than nonveterans and are less likely to have multiple previous offenses.

The decline in the veterans prison population tracks national demographics. Across the country, the number of veterans is shrinking fast as the millions of vets from World War II and Korea reach their 80s and 90s, and Vietnam vets reach their 70s.

Advocates for veterans also credit the lower incarceration rate partly to increased services for returning veterans. For example, most states now have "veterans courts," where veterans can get treatment for PTSD and drug abuse in lieu of jail time for certain crimes.

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There's new data out today that contradicts the stereotype of war veterans being prone to crime. The Department of Justice survey shows that veterans are less likely to be in jails and prisons than non-vets. This is also the first time that large numbers of Iraq and Afghanistan vets have figured into the survey. NPR's Quil Lawrence covers veterans, and he's here to talk about the new data. So Quil, what are the numbers?

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Vets make up about 8 percent of the incarcerated population, and that's much lower than the percentage of the population at large that are veterans. So essentially, veterans are much less likely to be behind bars than nonveterans. And these total numbers have declined. The study looked at vets in prisons and jails in 2011, 2012. And the last time they looked at this data, it was back in 2004, so that was too early to have tracked Iraq and Afghanistan veterans once they got home.

MCEVERS: So what did this study find about Iraq and Afghanistan vets specifically?

LAWRENCE: If you look at their age brackets in the prisons, they are a much smaller percentage of the overall prison population. There was a - the fear is sort of common stereotype that vets returning from wars would end up in the criminal justice system. That did happen after Vietnam. And in 1978, the Bureau of Justice Statistics saw 24 percent of the prison and jail populations were veterans. That didn't happen this time.

MCEVERS: So do we know why the overall number of veterans in prisons and jails is going down?

LAWRENCE: The study didn't go into explanations, but the most obvious answer would be the draft. Through Vietnam, there was a conscript drafted military. And once the Pentagon shifted to an all-volunteer force, these numbers started dropping. And it's dropped every time they measured since 1978. Any veteran you talk to will mention the vast difference between the goodwill and the services available to vets today compared to what Vietnam vets didn't have when they came home. During Vietnam, PTSD wasn't even a medical diagnosis.

MCEVERS: Well, let's talk about that, then. I mean, how prevalent are mental health issues among vets in prison now?

LAWRENCE: Vets who are behind bars do report more instances of the mental health issues like depression or PTSD. Among vets who saw combat, that is even higher. That's a small percentage. About a third of the vets in prisons and jails saw combat, but they do self-report things like depression and PTSD. And prison is a really terrible place to try and deal with PTSD, as we've reported. Most of the treatments for PTSD involve trying to wind down from that combat mindset, that sort of hypervigilance, but that's something you kind of need to keep with you in prison. So it's a very hard place to get treatment to heal from PTSD, and it's also a very hard place to get any sort of mental health services.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Quil Lawrence. He covers veterans' issues. Thanks.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.