Like Our Vets, Justice-Involved Youth Are Survivors of War

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Nisha Ajmani

Nisha AjmaniLegislatures and courts across the country have put reforms in place to address the service-related trauma underlying patterns of veterans engaging in criminal activity and violence. This comes as the link between substance abuse and violence, like the link between military service and subsequent mental health issues, becomes widely recognized.

Similarities can be drawn between the experiences of veterans and youth in the juvenile justice system. By the time youth first enter the justice system, the vast majority of them have witnessed and/or have been victim to some type of violence and are struggling to cope with the fallout of those experiences.

For example, a study conducted at a juvenile hall in Illinois found that “90 percent of youth reported past exposure to traumatic violence, which included being threatened with weapons (58 percent) and being physically assaulted (35 percent).”

Exposure to community violence is especially prevalent in impoverished, urban areas such as Oakland, Calif., which has been described as a “war zone” where children do not so much have post-traumatic stress disorder but rather experience continual traumatic violence.

Furthermore, research on “juvenile lifers” indicates that almost 80 percent of adolescents sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP) witnessed violence in their homes during childhood. Another study found that 80 percent of girls and almost half of all young people who are serving LWOP sentences have been physically abused.

hub_arrow_2-01When left unaddressed, the effects on children of exposure to violence can be catastrophic to their social development — often leading to, as the U.S. Department of Justice describes, “distrust, hypervigilance, impulsive behavior, isolation, addiction, lack of empathy or concern for others, and self-protected aggression.” Such ramifications parallel the experiences of many veterans upon their return to civilian life, which likely explain the criminal activity in which some veterans engage.

With growing evidence that young people with histories of exposure to violence and trauma are more likely to become involved with the justice system, juvenile justice stakeholders and departments in California and across the country must work to address the underlying causes of juvenile delinquency, as adult justice systems do with veterans who commit crime.

One reform that has demonstrated remarkable success in rehabilitating veterans is the veterans treatment court, which functions similarly to mental health and drug courts. The underlying premise of the veterans court model is to divert eligible defendants away from incarceration and toward individualized treatment and services in the community.

While veterans courts have been in existence for only seven years — the first one opened its doors in 2008 — the results thus far are promising. As of August 2013, most veterans courts showed recidivism rates of less than 5 percent, and the nation’s first veterans court, in Buffalo, N.Y., has consistently boasted a zero percent recidivism rate. A likely reason why veterans courts have such high success rates is because PTSD and other trauma-related mental health issues and behaviors are best resolved outside a correctional setting.

As of October 2014, 19 California counties had at least one veterans court. California veterans courts have also demonstrated success in their rehabilitative outcomes for the veterans they serve. For example, only six of 53 veterans (approximately 11 percent) who had graduated from the Orange County veterans court — which was established in 2008 — had been rearrested as of 2013. Moreover, the success of the Orange County veterans court has resulted in significant monetary savings, as the county can avoid the substantial costs of incarcerating this particular population of defendants.

Like the evident benefits of treating veterans who commit crime rather than incarcerating them, research has consistently shown that juveniles who have been exposed to trauma and violence have better rehabilitative outcomes when they are diverted to treatment than when they are placed in a custodial environment. Studies have also demonstrated that, no matter the quality of the treatment program, youth are less responsive to the program behind bars than they are in a noncorrectional setting.

While the veterans court model is not perfect — there are often too many offense-related eligibility restrictions that bar needy veterans from receiving services — its focus on treatment rather than confinement has proven to be effective.

Rather than locking kids up and throwing away the key, the juvenile court should adopt an approach similar to veterans courts in its handling of all young people who walk through the door, as, chances are that each one of them has been through war, even if it was not fought in Iraq, Afghanistan or Vietnam.

Nisha Ajmani is an attorney and policy and program specialist with the sentencing service program at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco.

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