The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
November 11, 2014

What we can learn about criminal justice from our wounded warriors

November 11, 2014

Today, Tuesday, November 11, is Veterans Day. In the media, there will likely be loose talk acknowledging the service of those who sacrificed for our country while serving in the US military. But it’s unlikely we’ll hear much specific talk about just what that sacrifice was, and what we can learn from it.

Over the past 15 years, American troops have been deployed in large numbers in Afghanistan and Iraq (and elsewhere, it should be noted). Many of these troops faced live fire and experienced the unimaginable reality of combat.

We mourn those who gave their lives in these conflicts. We give (and should continue to give) to important charities like the Wounded Warrior Project that helps those whose bodies will be forever transformed by their service. We are moved by those who have lost a limb or suffered a traumatic brain injury. We will, hopefully, learn to be ever more careful in putting young Americans into combat.

But there are other lessons to be learned as well.

Jim Abbott was born without a right hand. He rose above that limitation and pitched nine seasons of major league baseball, finishing fifth in the Rookie of the Year voting in 1989 and, impossibly, threw a no-hitter as a member of the New York Yankees in 1993.

Abbot overcame his disability and enjoyed personal and professional success. But other disabilities are harder to see and just as difficult to overcome.

One of the least obvious disabilities is trauma. Justice for Vets cites research that one in five veterans from our most recent conflicts have a mental health disorder or cognitive impairment, including post-traumatic stress disorder. One in six has a drug or alcohol issue.

As a result of our wars, we’ve learned a lot about psychological trauma. We know it has a range of destructive symptoms, and many believe that it has played a major role in the disproportionate number of veterans in the criminal justice system.

Some who have encountered the criminal justice system are now being treated in Veterans Courts. With respect to trauma, Veterans Courts are a relatively recent innovation, but early outcomes and reviews from veterans have been largely favorable.

Veterans Courts are one of many specialized courts that focus on underlying disorders that lead to criminal offending. Crime has declined rapidly in the US over the past generation, and in 2013 violent crime had declined more than 50 percent from 1991. The idea of introducing therapeutic processes into criminal case processing has been an important part of systems reform, and it seems to be working.

But too few who have experienced trauma outside the battlefield benefit from these programs. This includes children who witness violence at home, who are then more likely to use violence themselves. It also includes those who have experienced trauma as a domestic partner and those who have experienced trauma as a young person, trapped in a violent place.

Trauma-informed care can and should be an essential part of the process to help both victims and offenders build stable lives. Building mental health care into the recovery process—and the criminal justice process—the same way we are beginning to do for veterans is key to stopping the cycle of violence.

Violence leaves both immediate and long-term scars. Those scars are obvious for our wounded warriors; less obvious for our returning veterans with traumatic brain injuries; and just as real for our children, young adults, and domestic partners in battered homes, damaged families, and violent neighborhoods.

Veterans Day is a celebration of America’s heroes. Let’s celebrate them by learning the lessons about how we can help heal them and applying those lessons to all our citizens.

Photo: An Iraq war veteran being treated for PTSD. (AP/Rex Arbogast).

SHARE THIS PAGE

As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.