Former defense chiefs say number of incarcerated veterans is concerning

A commission including two former secretaries of defense called for action to steer veterans away from incarceration in the civilian justice system.

The Veterans Justice Commission, which is led by former defense secretary Chuck Hagel and also includes former defense secretary Leon Panetta, said in a release that the system “fails to adequately identify veterans, steer them away from prosecution and incarceration, and coordinate or research the effectiveness of programs attempting to support them.”

The commission said only 9 of 18,000 law enforcement agencies and 11 percent of jails use available methods to identify veterans based on data, and only 36 of 2,300 district attorneys’ offices have veteran-specific diversion programs.

The address these issues, the commission called on Congress to begin a study to identify how to encourage local law enforcement agencies to identify veterans. It also called on states to implement diversion programs for veterans convicted of crimes.

Separately, it asked the federal government to found a National Center on Veteran Justice aimed at coordinating support for veterans and advancing “best practices” for their interactions with the civilian justice system.

“Too many veterans are ending up in our criminal justice system, and while they must be held accountable for their behavior, our nation has a responsibility to honor their service and help them address the factors that often drive them to break the law,” Hagel said.

Hagel was secretary of defense under President Obama. He also served as a senator from Nebraska from 1997 to 2009.

The commission found that a third of veterans report being arrested in their lifetime and that 181,500 veterans are incarcerated nationwide, according to the release.

“While there have been innovations and improvements in how we manage and support justice-involved veterans in recent years, the situation, frankly, remains appalling,” Panetta said.

He was the director of the CIA and later the secretary of defense during the Obama administration. He also served as White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton.

“We can and must do better for the men and women who put their lives at risk to serve our nation,” Panetta said.

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