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Military veterans are over represented in the criminal justice system. Trevor Philpott FRSA argues that our current response to this signifies a failure in the Military Covenant and for new alternatives to custody.

Military conflicts over the last 20 years have seen a steady increase in the tragic images of death and injury relayed directly into our living rooms: the Falkland’s, Northern Ireland, Bosnia, the two wars in Iraq and now Afghanistan. More recently, public awareness of the consequences of war has risen as coffins draped in the Union Flag have been driven through Royal Wootton Bassett.

Help for Heroes and other military charities have raised millions of pounds, most of which has rightly been used to help those with physical injuries. Too often these images fail to portray the other equally damaging mental health symptoms caused by violent combat.  Critically, levels of mental ill-health and Combat Operational Stress Reaction (COSR) or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) rarely become apparent until many years later. For example, of all those who fought in the Falklands war, more have subsequently committed suicide than were killed in action. Similar evidence has been identified in the US following the Vietnam War.

In 2000, the Military Covenant said: “Soldiers will be called upon to make personal sacrifices – including the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ in the service of the Nation. In return, British soldiers must always be able to expect fair treatment, to be valued and respected as individuals, and that they (and their families) will be sustained and rewarded by commensurate terms and conditions of service.”

Today’s Covenant also clearly acknowledges that the state has a ‘duty of care’ to members of its armed forces.  For the majority, this is being provided, particularly for those with immediate physical injuries. Regrettably, often owing to a time lag, there are an increasing number of veterans and families who fail to access such support and an alarming number are subsequently entering the justice system. Of these, most are suffering with various mental health disorders ranging from depression and anxiety through to CSOR or PTSD.

Meanwhile a report by the Howard League, Leaving Forces Life, concluded: “despite there being a great deal more help available via service charities, individuals are still falling through the net and ending up in the justice system, often years after discharge. Issues stemming from post-service dysfunction, mental illness, poverty, addictions and marital breakdown are all contributing.”

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) estimates of numbers of veterans in prison suggest 4%; however, the National Offender Management Information System (NOMIS) suggest as many as 11% (9,500), with individual prisons reporting up to 14%. The MoJ estimates that 5,800 veterans are serving probation and community orders (while NAPO suggests this figure could be a as many as 12,500).  Whichever figures are accurate; with the exception of the long-termed unemployed, former military veterans represent the largest occupational profession within our justice system. Clearly the government has more to achieve if it is to deliver on its Covenant.

The military environment is one of support, comradeship, service and danger. For some, re-integrating back into society is particularly difficult. Many join the military at a young age, often before gaining the life skills that others in civilian life go on to learn and take for granted: completing a CV, taking out a mortgage, paying for council taxes and managing personal household budgets.

Having served their country and risked their lives, some ex-servicemen have trouble leaving their highly skilled military training and combat experience behind. An MSc Criminology and Forensic Psychology research paper called Trained to kill then hung out to dry by Rebecca Crawford, describes how some veterans respond more aggressively to situations such as pub brawls, taking them to a higher level of violence, viewing the opponent as an ‘enemy’. Whilst this violence is not acceptable, this relationship and set of circumstances that veterans face is rarely taken into account by the justice system. Veterans are often compared with mindless violent thugs, when in reality it is often a confusion of one set of norms to another. Some are simply unable to determine how much of a threat may exist and react as they would in a combat zone.

Crawford references numerous other academic research papers that back these theories. These include findings that PTSD causes deep-rooted extreme anger and that managing this needs to be part of treatment. PTSD can also create and prompt further mental illness, highlighting the need for early diagnosis. PTSD may not happen to two people who witness the same atrocities but Crawford concludes that the disorder is highly correlated with other stress related variables.

She argues that, military organisations are not merely a sub-group of society but a discrete and separate society with their own structure, values, hierarchy, language and general rules. She shows that servicemen’s mental health and well-being can peak during service but can decline after to be worse off than their pre-service frame of mind. Finally she concludes that it is feasible that an ex-serviceman’s troubles may be attributed to a shift or inner clash and conflict of identities.

The reality is that for a host of reasons, the causes of crime by veterans are often complex and, because of a failure to meet the spirit enshrined within the Military Covenant, too many are entering our justice system. An alternative to custody and probation for veteran offenders is urgently needed. Four VCS organisations are proposing such an alternative - the Veterans Change Partnership - which proposes safe, intensive and constructive residential programme of personal development, helping offenders to address their issues, rebuild their confidence, sense of pride and self-worth, whilst also gaining the necessary skills to move onto productive and fulfilling lives.


Trevor Philpott, OBE, FRSA is a former Royal Marine Lieutenant Colonel who for the last 14 years has worked within the Voluntary Sector promoting penal reform. You can read more about this subject.

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