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January / February 2008

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VETERANS INCARCERATED COMMITTEE REPORT
Punishment vs. Treatment

BY TERRY HUBERT, CHAIR
The Veterans Incarcerated Committee has received good news about incarcerated issues from a variety of sources and remains optimistic about the future for veterans incarcerated.

Probably the best news came from the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare, which has been closely monitoring the re-approval of The Second Chance Act of 2007, HR 1593. This bill passed the House and included $360 million for a variety of essential re-entry programs for adults and youth.

Essentially, Congress is grappling with the enormous cost associated with the current practices addressing the social problems caused by substance abuse in America. The prevalent practice has emphasized strict law enforcement (zero tolerance) at the expense of treatment and prevention, which is a punishment versus treatment mentality. The emphasis is seen in a burgeoning prison population and very few treatment or prevention-related programs.

In approving The Second Chance Act, Congress recognized that the nation’s prisons and jails incarcerate approximately 2.3 million prisoners and that almost 650,000 are released every year. It is necessary to provide essential social services to guide the reintegration process of these offenders.

Fortunately, this bill will provide funds for re-entry programs and services for those being released from prison. It is important to support and expand successful community-based re-entry programs, such as the Incarcerated Veterans Transition Program and RidgeHouse, Inc. Programs like these will be able to apply for grants to offer transitional services to men and women leaving prison. The Senate still must pass it, and then the Bush administration must sign off on it, for it to become law. Both the administration and the Senate have expressed support for The Second Chance Act of 2007. Realistically, funds will become available in FY 2009.

How does this relate to veterans? The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) estimates that in 2004 veterans accounted for about 10 percent of state prisoners. This was down from a high of 20 percent in 1986. In May 2007, the BJS reported that 140,000 veterans were in prison and that 54 percent of state prisoners and 64 percent of federal prisoners served during wartime. Vietnam-era veterans were the single largest group of incarcerated veterans (38 percent). Interestingly, veterans generally have shorter criminal records than non-veterans and about 80 percent of these veterans report that substance abuse is a key issue in their incarceration.

Other news affecting incarcerated veterans comes from the U.S. Sentencing Commission. The commission approved a Crack Cocaine Amendment and in December 11 was scheduled to vote on the retroactivity application of this amendment. The Crack Cocaine Amendment addresses the fundamental unfairness of the penalties applied against drug offenders confined by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). Considering that 60 percent of BOP prisoners are incarcerated for drug offenses, the retroactive application of the Crack Cocaine Amendment would affect the sentences of some 20,000 prisoners.

The disproportionate and severe penalties levied against the users of crack cocaine have been especially detrimental to racial and ethnic minorities and, in particular, to women. We see this racial disparity most notably reflected in our prisons. The U.S. Sentencing Commission noted that the current crack cocaine sentencing guidelines overstate the seriousness of crack offenses, are too broad, apply mostly to low-level offenders, and disproportionately affect blacks. The Commission said that its concerns were “so urgent and compelling” that reform was necessary.

The Justice Policy Institute recently released a controversial study of some two hundred counties with populations of 250,000 or larger that examined rates of incarcerating drug offenders. The Institute found that these two hundred large American counties on average incarcerate ten black offenders for every white drug offender. In some places, the ratio is even higher.

The Veterans Incarcerated Committee recognizes that our focus on veterans incarcerated is just a small aspect of a larger social issue that we as veterans and citizens should be concerned about. Prison is a microcosm of the nation, reflecting how we address social problems. Social problems such as poverty, unemployment, racism, substance abuse, homelessness, and a myriad mental-health issues are closely intertwined and addressed by the criminal justice system.

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