Some veterans face elevated risk of mental illness, alcohol, and drug use, and difficulty adjusting post-deployment, which can increase the risk of homelessness and contact with the criminal justice system (Elbogen et al., 2012). This study adds to the limited and mixed findings regarding factors associated with criminal offending among veterans. It explores, from veterans’ perspectives, what contributes to their criminal justice involvement. In-depth interviews with 28 U.S. Veterans on probation or parole explored their military service, mental health, and the events surrounding arrests. Findings indicate that substance use was a significant contributor to arrests. Alcohol and drugs were used to cope with trauma, interpersonal stress, and their transition from military service to civilian life. Some veterans indicated that substance use was evident and problematic prior to military service, while others found the military culture and conditions post-service contributed to problematic use. Veterans also entered the criminal justice system due to difficulties adjusting to civilian life and economic disadvantage.
Despite the development and implementation of pre-arrest and diversion programming, the number of people in the U.S. involved in the criminal justice system remains high. In 2013, one in 35 people was under a form of correctional supervision (e.g., probation or parole, jail, prison; Glaze & Kaeble, 2014). Although rates of people on community supervision declined in 2013, there was a slight increase in the national prison population. Many of the people who encounter the criminal justice system are considered part of vulnerable populations or populations with an increased risk of negative outcomes from exposure to the criminal justice system such as people with mental health problems, chronic substance use problems, or veterans. Veterans, in particular, are thought to be at a heightened risk of suicide (Frisman & Griffin-Fennell, 2009; Wortzel, Binswanger, Anderson, & Adler, 2009) and may experience an exacerbation of mental and physical health symptoms while in custody (Sigafoos, 1994).
Myriad programs along the criminal justice continuum (i.e., pre-arrest, court, jailand prison-based, and reentry) have targeted veterans in order to reduce the negative impacts of the criminal justice system on their mental and physical health and recidivism risk. Although post-arrest programming like veterans treatment courts are helpful (Knudsen & Wingenfeld, 2016), greater emphasis is needed for the development and implementation of preventative programming that reduces the risk of veterans entering the criminal justice system. However, the body of research on the causes of criminal offending among veterans, which is needed for intervention development, is mixed and inconclusive (Taylor, Parkes, Haw, & Jepson, 2012).
This paper outlines the results of the first phase of a research project that aimed to explore and identify causes and contributors to veterans’ criminal justice involvement from the perspective of a heterogeneous group of veterans with varying discharge statuses. Knowledge gained from this analysis uniquely adds veterans’ perspectives to the literature and creates the foundation for developmental research on arrest prevention programs targeting military veterans with and without veterans’ benefits.
Veterans account for approximately 8% of the national prison and jail population (Bronson, Carson, Noonan, & Berzofsky, 2015). Little data exists to discern the rate of arrest among veterans. One group of researchers estimated that approximately 6% of arrestees self-reported veteran status in one county in Arizona in 2009 (White, Mulvey, Fox, & Choate, 2012). The rate of arrest is thought to vary by cohorts of veterans serving in the military at different points in time (Culp, Youstin, Englander, & Lynch, 2011; Greenberg, Rosenheck, & Desai, 2007; Tsai, Rosenheck, Kasprow, & McGuire, 2013); however, it is likely that these differences are, in part, explained by changes in military recruitment, eligibility, and enlistment (e.g., all volunteer force vs. draft; Greenberg & Rosenheck, 2012). It is expected that the rate of incarcerated veterans will increase, and the number of veterans who are arrested will continue to climb over time as service members from the most recent conflicts transition home (Brown, Stanulis, Theis, Farnsworth, & Daniels, 2013).
Preventing criminal justice involvement among veterans is important in order to reduce the disparate risks they face once involved in the criminal justice system. Veterans are at a high risk of negative outcomes once arrested. Incarcerated veterans are thought to be at a heightened risk of suicide (Frisman & Griffin-Fennell, 2009; Wortzel et al., 2009) and may experience an exacerbation of symptoms while in custody (Sigafoos, 1994) because of the vulnerabilities inherent in the prison environment (Cavanaugh, 2010). Additionally, felony convictions can interfere with finding and securing employment and may have an impact on benefits for the veteran and his or her family (Addlestone & Chaset, 2008) that can increase their susceptibility to homelessness upon release from incarceration (Greenberg & Rosenheck, 2008) and poverty. Incarcerated veterans face myriad treatment needs. At least half of incarcerated veterans have at least one mental health concern including exposure to trauma at some point in their lifetime (military or nonmilitary related). Nearly 40% of veterans in jail have posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD; Blodgett, Fuh, Maisel, & Midboe, 2013). Jails and prisons are not set up to clinically monitor mental illness and intensive treatment; thus many conditions are not addressed while in custody or people receive minimal treatment. Veterans also face a high risk for recidivism, particularly when they have substance use problems (Blodgett et al., 2013).
Despite a growing body of literature on veterans in the criminal justice system, the precise reasons why veterans are being arrested are not clear. It is known that adjusting to civilian life following military service can be difficult for many veterans. Over a quarter of veterans surveyed reported having difficulty transitioning to civilian life; among veterans who served since 2001, 44% experienced difficult transitions (Morin, 2011). Scholars argue that military training and the behaviors required for being successful in the military clash with civilian culture, thus making adjustment post-service complex and challenging (Brown et al., 2013; Huskey, 2015; Smith & True, 2014). For example, Smith and True (2014) find that veterans face an identity struggle when returning home. In the military, group cohesion and collectivism are expected and valued while autonomy and self-focus are the norm for American civilian culture. Navigating between these two cultural ideals can create mental distress for some veterans.
Difficulty adjusting to civilian life can impair occupational and social functioning and may lead to anger for some people (Worthen & Ahern, 2014), all of which could put people at risk for encountering the criminal justice system. Having PTSD is one predictor of work and financial problems following discharge from the military (Larson & Norman, 2014). Many veterans from the most recent conflicts have returned home diagnosed with PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI; Tanielian & Jaycox, 2008), which some research shows increases the risk of aggression, violence, and incarceration (Calhoun, Malesky, Bosworth, & Beckham, 2005; Grafman, Schwab, Warden, & Pridgen, 1996; Greenberg & Rosenheck, 2009; Pandiani, Rosenheck, & Banks, 2003; Saxon et al., 2001; Shaw, Churchill, Noyes, & Loeffelholz, 1987). Other studies, however, do not find PTSD (Larson & Norman, 2014) or TBI (Elbogen et al., 2012) to be a predictor of arrest.
Across studies, veterans with mental illnesses, family violence, and childhood conduct problems (Blodgett et al., 2013; Elbogen et al., 2012; Erickson, Rosenheck, Trestman, Ford, & Desai, 2008; Tsai & Rosenheck, 2013), combat exposure (Black et al., 2005), and antisocial traits (Black et al., 2005) are at an increased risk of contact with the criminal justice system. Many of these traits are also associated with criminal justice involvement among civilian populations (Bonta, Law, & Hanson, 1998; Schubert, Mulvey, & Glasheen, 2011; Skeem, Manchak, & Peterson, 2011). One of the most well documented correlates for criminal justice involvement among veterans are alcohol and drug use problems (Erickson et al., 2008; Elbogen et al., 2012; Weaver, Trafton, Kimerling, Timko, & Moos, 2013). Approximately one quarter of veterans in prison were using drugs or alcohol at the time of arrest (Noonan & Mumola, 2007). Those veterans with co-occurring mental illnesses and substance use disorders face the highest risk for incarceration (Pandiani et al., 2003).
For some populations, veteran status is a protective factor to criminal justice involvement. Although African American veterans are 5.6 times more likely to be incarcerated than Caucasian veterans, this risk is lower than the risk of incarceration in the general population (6.7 times higher; Tsai et al., 2013). Bouffard (2005) argues the military is a turning point for many service men and women. It is protective due to the broad range of experiences and opportunities not available to civilians, but may also have negative consequences like teaching aggressive problem solving strategies, exposure to interpersonal stress due to separation from family, and trauma from combat situations.
Although it is helpful to know the correlates associated with criminal justice involvement, these data do not distinguish the various and potentially unique pathways that lead people with experience in the military into the criminal justice system. The analysis presented in this paper extends the literature by utilizing the perspectives and voices of military veterans who have been arrested to develop foundational knowledge regarding the causes, contributors, and life experiences that veterans believe led to their criminal justice involvement.
The aim of this project is to explore and identify why military veterans encounter the criminal justice system. In order to achieve this aim, we used an exploratory sequential research design (Creswell & Plano Clark, 2011). This type of design allows for exploration of a topic before quantitative measurement. The qualitative analysis (Phase I) is presented in this manuscript. We used a constructivist perspective to inductively uncover salient constructs to test in Phase II. The exploratory sequential research design is conducted in four steps: (1) Exploration of a phenomenon through data collection and analysis (completed in Phase I); (2) Use of the emergent framework and variables identified through qualitative analysis to develop constructs to be tested in Phase II (completed in Phase I); (3) Examination of quantitative constructs with a new sample of participants (Phase II); and (4) Interpretation of results, including the extent to which factors identified in the qualitative analysis remained salient in the quantitative analysis (Phase II; Creswell & Plano Clark, 2011).
We recruited self-identified veterans who were on probation or parole in one county in mid-Missouri through two different strategies: (1) the distribution of flyers to probation and parole officers; and (2) recruitment phone calls to self-identified veterans. For purposes of this study, a “veteran” is defined as any adult who previously served any amount of time in the U.S. Armed Forces. Probation and parole officers informed veterans on their caseload that a researcher may be calling to inform them of the research study. We randomly drew names from a list of 115 veterans and called them to inform them of this study. We set up interviews with the first 32 participants who responded to our calls or flyers. Twenty-eight participants consented to study participation; four people did not show up to scheduled interviews. The four people who did not show up met eligibility criteria for the study. We did not retain any other information about them, and thus are not aware if they are significantly different from the veterans who consented.
Eligible participants were required to have served in the U.S. Armed Forces for any period of time, currently be on probation or parole for a felony charge or charges, and be English speaking. Participants took part in one semi-structured interview with researchers at a location convenient for the veteran. Interviews were face-to-face and lasted between 30 and 90 minutes. All interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed by a third-party service. An interview guide was used during interviews, but it was not rigidly followed in order to probe participants for further information when necessary. Questions in the semi-structured interviews were intended to capture veterans’ perspectives of the contributors to his/her arrest, factors that, if addressed, may have prevented criminal justice involvement, and general experiences with the criminal justice system (e.g., arrest, probation, parole). Questions included: Can you tell me about the events that led to your most recent arrest? Can you talk about other arrests and the events surrounding those? Why do you think you were arrested? Can you think of anything that may have prevented you from being arrested? Are there resources you need that will prevent future arrests? What was it like for you to be arrested? Can you talk about your experience with probation/parole/arrest/incarceration?
During initial consent procedures, study participants were asked if they could be contacted again for a follow-up focus group where researchers presented the findings and participants were given the opportunity to challenge, support, and comment on the analysis. Twenty-four participants wanted to be contacted for the focus group which took place eight months following the final semi-structured interview. When contacted, four participants agreed to take part in the focus group, nine no longer had working phone numbers, four had scheduling conflicts, and seven were left voicemail messages with no return call. Two of the four study participants attended the focus group. The focus group was also audio-recorded and transcribed by a third-party service.
We utilized Schatzman’s (1991) grounded dimensional approach to the analysis of the semi-structured interviews and focus group. Grounded dimensional analysis is a variation of grounded theory (Strauss, 1987) and allows the researcher to utilize an overarching, interactionist framework to guide the analysis and uncover meaning. We utilized the model outlined by Kools and colleagues (1996) which identifies the context (i.e., boundaries of the research), conditions (i.e., factors that impact the phenomenon of study), processes (i.e., actions/interactions that promote conditions), and consequences (i.e., outcomes of an action/interaction) of the phenomenon under examination. We used thematic analysis in combination with the grounded dimensional analysis to identify, analyze, organize, interpret, and pres ent patterns or themes within data (Braun & Clarke, 2006). Themes are intended to capture important components of the data in relation to research questions. The interviews conducted in Phase One were deconstructed into components through coding using both open coding and the overarching framework and were eventually grouped together based on thematic similarities. Once chunks of data were grouped, they were compared, contrasted, and synthesized to create an explanatory framework including overarching themes. These results will be used to develop hypotheses for Phase Two and will direct what additional data needs to be collected.
Specific to this study, we wanted to understand why military veterans encounter the criminal justice system, including the pathways and conditions that contribute to criminal justice involvement. Prior to data collection, we set the context of the study to include a heterogeneous group of veterans who were already involved in the criminal justice system for felony charges. We sampled through probation and parole rather than the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs because we wanted our study to include people who may not be benefit eligible, benefit eligible but not using services, and have varying discharge statuses, including those statuses that restrict or limit involvement in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Approximately 23% of incarcerated people with service histories were discharged without honorable conditions (Bronson et al., 2015), and thus it was important to include that population in our analysis. Further details on the context are described below in the Results section.
Two members of the research team conducted all interviews, proofread each transcript by listening to the audio-recording and reading through the transcripts prior to analysis, recorded their interview experiences, and conducted the first round of coding. Although specific questions were asked about reasons for criminal justice involvement, researchers analyzed entire interviews rather than only responses to individual questions. The aim of the first round of coding was to identify portions of the interviews where participants discussed their criminal justice involvement (i.e., the consequence of interest in this study), including the reasons for arrests, the life circumstances occurring at the time of arrest, perceived causes of arrest, and factors that directly or indirectly contributed to arrest. Using only the data coded in round one, a second round of coding occurred to identify the emergent themes that facilitated or led to arrest. After the second round of coding, the research team met to discuss emergent themes, redundancies in themes, and recommendations for consolidating themes. The remaining themes were clearly defined using participants’ language when possible. The themes are the conditions of arrest in our sample. The first author conducted a third round of coding to identify emergent themes that impacted the conditions of arrest (i.e., the processes). In order to examine the validity of the results, the research team met to discuss the preliminary findings and how results are situated within the larger body of data on criminal justice involved veterans. Preliminary findings were also presented to study participants who joined the focus group facilitated by the first author and research assistant. The fourth and final round of analysis integrated preliminary findings, the larger body of literature, and focus group data in an iterative fashion (i.e., going back and forth between reading through data sources, identified themes, and the literature) until the conclusions presented below were clearly conceptualized, defined, and challenged with alternative explanations. The analysis was organized using NVivo software, version 10. All procedures and methods used were approved by the University Institutional Review Board.
The context of the study was defined by the parameters of our sample of veterans who were involved in the criminal justice system at the time of study recruitment. Table 1 outlines the demographic and key variables of interest (n=28). The sample represents a heterogeneous group of veterans from different branches with varying discharge statuses, benefit eligibility, deployments, and combat exposure. The average age of study participants was 45.5 years old at the time of the initial interview. The majority of study participants served in the Army and 36% reported exposure to combat. All veterans were on probation or parole in a Midwestern county at the time of our interview for the conviction of a felony charge or charges. On average, participants self-reported 4.4 lifetime arrests and the majority of the sample had spent time in jail or prison in the past. Only one participant was arrested prior to serving in the military.
The overarching goal of this project was to develop an understanding of why military veterans become involved in the criminal justice system. Study participants identified a number of factors that they perceived to have caused or contributed to their criminal justice involvement. Factors identified by participants are surrounded by and embedded within salient conditions that facilitate contact with the criminal justice system. We coded data as a contributor to criminal justice involvement when our study participants explicitly stated a factor caused their arrest or discussed factors that co-occurred with all or almost all of their arrests. Some participants identified multiple factors while others identified one primary cause. Three prominent factors consistently emerged throughout data analysis: alcohol and drug use, difficulty adjusting after military service, and economic disadvantage. Each factor and its pathway leading to the criminal justice system is discussed in detail below, including the conditions surrounding criminal justice involvement and direct quotes from study participants that help illustrate the emergent themes and conditions that these factors are embedded within.
Many people, regardless of their service in the military, are in the criminal justice system due to drug and alcohol use. Of the general population, 45% of a national sample of people who had been arrested met criteria at the time of arrest for a substance use disorder (Kubiak, Arfken, Swartz, & Koch, 2006). What may be different for military veterans, however, are the conditions in which alcohol and drug use acted as a pathway for criminal justice entry. In other words, the circumstances leading to drug and alcohol use for military veterans may be, in part, related to their time in the military.
Table 1. Sample demographics and key variables
Prior to the military
During the military
1 to 2
3 to 4
5 or more
Possession of drugs
Intent to sell drugs or manufacturing
Driving while intoxicated
Theft or robbery
Fraud or forgery
Domestic or aggravated assault
Manslaughter or homicide
Failure to pay child support
Note: ‘*’ denotes categories are not mutually exclusive; the counts represent the number of participants who have a previous charge in the associated category (NOTE: Some participants could not recall all of their charges, particularly when there was extensive history. Given this, the numbers listed may be an underestimate.) ‘+’ includes unlawful use of a firearm, pornography, violation to order of protection, property damage, and probation violation/absconding.
Twenty-four out of 28 veterans in this study discussed alcohol and drug use as a major contributor to their criminal justice involvement. Within this theme, four salient conditions emerged regarding veteran alcohol and drug use that help to give context and meaning to their substance use. These four themes include pre-existing problematic substance use, trauma during military service, interpersonal stress, and poor coping with adjustment to civilian life. One theme, pre-existing problematic substance use, denotes the small group of veterans who reported having problems with alcohol or drug use prior to entering the military. Following their service, they continued having problems with substance use which, as they perceived, led them into the criminal justice system. The three remaining themes include stressful events and circumstances that occurred during or following their military experience. Figure 1 outlines the proposed relationship between the four emergent themes, substance use, and criminal justice involvement.
Figure 1. Substance use as pathway to criminal justice involvement
The first condition to emerge within drug and alcohol use leading to criminal justice involvement involved a small group of veterans (n=4) who reported they had problematic substance use prior to entering the military. Problematic substance use was defined by participants identifying their drug or alcohol use as being problematic for them before they enlisted. For example, participants reported being addicted to drugs or “partying” too much or being an “alcoholic” when they went into the military (“I was an alcoholic before I went in. I was drunk when I signed up.” Vet 026). Problematic alcohol and drug use was already present for this group of veterans prior to their military service. It is unknown whether or not serving in the military impacts people with pre-existing problematic substance use. As one participant said, “I don’t think that the uniform makes a difference, one way or another” (Vet 028). Although this may be true for some, the military may mediate the impact of pre-existing substance use problems. Serving in the military did not prevent these veterans from being arrested; however, Veteran 017 reports:
If I hadn’t gone in the Marines I think probably I—there’s a good chance that I would be worse, more trouble, honestly, because I went into the Marines because I just got into partying too much in high school and was starting to sample drugs, you know? I wasn’t addicted to anything but I was definitely open-minded to sample things and my senior year I just barely graduated due to partying and if I hadn’t been taught that discipline … I think things probably would’ve went downhill for me. Vet 017
Other people discussed how they did have problems with alcohol use after the military but the military didn’t cause the problem (e.g., “Now, I can’t say that the service made me an alcoholic. Well, I did learn to drink real good there but they didn’t make me be an alcoholic” Vet 003).
Serving in the military could impact the trajectory of problematic substance use by facilitating a culture of acceptance of excessive drinking (e.g., “I was drunk most of the time. Not on duty, but after duty. I drank in the barracks …As long as you could go out and do your patrol, whatever you were doing, they accepted it. It was just a coping—I think it was a coping mechanism, basically, for combat … but they accept—alcoholism is acceptable, but you can’t do drugs, and you can’t be drunk on duty.” Vet 026). Serving in the military could be protective in that it removes people from risky environments or it could be damaging as it places people with vulnerabilities in high stress environments. More research is needed in order to explore how serving in the military impacts people with pre-existing problems with substance use. This section presented data on the condition of entering the military with self-identified alcohol or drug use problems. The remaining three conditions include stressful events or circumstances that arose during or after service in the military which led participants to problematic substance use.
Trauma while in the military is one salient condition that study participants perceived to have caused their problematic substance use. Seven participants referenced situations, events, circumstances, or series of events that occurred during military service that they perceived as traumatic. Veterans viewed these traumatic conditions as being the reason they began using substances, which subsequently propelled them into the criminal justice system. One participant talked about how military sexual trauma impacted her feelings of self-worth and subsequent drug use:
But I believe in my circumstance, being in the military and having so many awful things happen to me that—I was a good girl. I was a good girl. I wouldn’t have used. I would have had the power to say no. I wouldn’t have hooked up with somebody who beat me because I felt like I was worthless. I went into the Navy with pride, and I came out feeling worthless. Vet 009
Other participants who experienced combat and had post-traumatic symptoms discussed their drug and alcohol use post-service as a way to cope with and manage their symptoms. Vet 011 stated, “It (substance use) lets me sleep at night.” Similarly, another veteran reported,
Like I said, it (drug use) was after my deployments that I came back and I just relied on alcohol to get some shit out of my head that I saw or had to deal with ‘cause my second trip, we lost 53 people. So it wasn’t pretty at all ... it was something to clear my head, get the memories out so I could feel kinda’ normal I guess. Vet 010
Some participants reported they had received treatment for their experienced trauma while others had not.
Five study participants discussed instances of interpersonal stress that perpetuated or initiated substance use. Although participants identified their substance use as what led to criminal justice involvement (e.g., driving while intoxicated, possession of a controlled substance), participants reported the substance use resulted from distress between friends and family. For example, participants talked about substance use as a way to cope with “family problems,” fighting with significant others, and changes in household (e.g., children moving back home, significant others moving out). For example:
That’s pretty much the only thing you can do when you’re stateside after work is go drink. So when me and my ex-wife separated, the stress and me not being around the kids and the job and getting ready to deploy and everything else, it was easier for me to go drink than it was to sit down and talk to somebody about it. So me and my buddies would go out four or five times a week, go get drunk and show up to formation still drunk the next day but we’d P.T. [Physical Training] and work it out and go do it all over again. Vet 020
Other participants discussed mounting stress with partners during deployments. One participant asked his wife to move with him when he was overseas. She was not able to relocate and he ended up having multiple affairs while deployed. He reported, “I was having family problems as well. And I just got to a point I didn’t give a damn. I could go—I’d go down to the Red Light District to get a woman, but I did love my wife at the time. And I think that kind of threw me in the bottle.” Alcohol use, in this case, was used as a means to cope with stress and conflicting emotions surrounding interpersonal strains.
Other veterans in this study coped with the stress and strain of family problems during their deployment, but struggled to cope when they transitioned back home and faced the interpersonal stressors directly. One participant reported after his unwanted discharge from the Navy:
I felt rejected … And because of, you know, putting up with my dad and putting up with my mom, then the Navy rejected me and … I took it hard. I took it really hard because I was gonna be a career sailor in the Navy. I had my career plan all set up on what I wanted to do. So yeah, it was hard. I didn’t seek treatment or anything and when I got back home, I was working menial jobs, jobs that I was just very disappointed with … That I didn’t like doing, didn’t have the camaraderie that the Navy did. Vet 024
Veteran 024 went on to describe how he battled with depression and problematic alcohol use following his discharge from the Navy. Participants also discussed the stress and strain of transitioning back to family life with their significant others when they returned home. Veteran 019 described his military experience: “It changed me because when I came home I couldn’t stay in the house. I couldn’t be married no more. I was too independent and then my freedom and my space and I didn’t know that I would chase a beautiful wife away from me like that and I did. She divorced me after we had two kids. I punish myself years later about it.” Veteran 019 was on probation for his second charge of driving while intoxicated.
Alcohol and drug use and coping with transition from military service member to civilian status. Although it is not uncommon for veterans to report some difficulty transitioning from serving in the military to life as a civilian, participants in this study discussed service discharge and the subsequent transition as a highly stressful time. Two key themes emerged that are associated with this transition period were especially problematic: the conditions of discharge and military training and culture. In both cases, participants attributed problematic substance use to coping with the stressful transition. For some participants, the transition never occurred as they quickly ended up in jail. For others, there was an attempt to work through the transition but it ended unsuccessfully with arrest. Twenty-three study participants attributed their alcohol and drug use as a means to cope with their transition from the military to civilian life.
Participants with dishonorable discharges reported significant distress due to the conditions of their discharge. Problematic substance use resulted from or increased following their discharge. Veter an 005 provided an account of what he experienced which combines anger directed at his own actions (i.e., smoking marijuana) and feelings of being abandoned by the military. Having a difficult time managing those feelings, he had no resources for treatment and began self-medicating with alcohol.
I mean I failed. I was a failure. I failed a lot of people. I failed myself. And a lot of people turn to alcohol, drinking or whatever, but I don’t know. There wasn’t anyone to talk to about it. There was no—I didn’t have any recourse. When I got out, it’s like the Army’s through with me, see you later. There was nothing given to me that said, hey, this is a pretty big deal. You were a good guy, a good soldier, but you knew the rules, but if you need some help getting out or some place you need to call, some center, some place to help you get a job—none of that happened. And that’s why I do a lot of things … And then it was all taken away quickly, and it’s my fault. I don’t blame anyone but myself. But when I got out, I thought … I would have thought there would have been something. Just, you’re out of the Army, son, go home. Well then now what? Vet 005
Involuntary discharge from the military was disappointing to study participants but it also made participants reflect back on their ability to “be a good soldier” which participants prided themselves on. The resulting feelings further complicated an already stressful transition. Some participants directed their feelings at the military (e.g., “How can you say I’m an outstanding soldier but still you’re going to let me go … kind of made me resentful toward the military.” Vet 013) while others internalized their hard feelings (e.g., “—it was a like a real big thing for me because I just really loved being in and I did very well, you know? I gained a lot of rank and I just really beat myself up over it for a lot of years” Vet 017).
Substance use also resulted from difficulty adjusting to civilian life due to military training and culture. Participants discussed the survival skills, high pay, and military duties during their service and how, for some people, these aspects of the military created barriers to successful transitions. One veteran described how military training will keep you alive but may not encourage people to seek help:
… any military really does a good job of teaching you how to survive. They teach you how to weather the storm, but they don’t teach you how to dance in the rain. And by that, I mean they teach you to be a survivor, and so we vets—we survive. We can be drunks for a long, long time. We can still be semi-productive. We still have—we can still pull it together. We’re just not functioning right. And our way of dealing with things is ignore it, put it out of your mind, do what you’ve gotta do to get through that day. Survive at all costs. Vet 025
The training provided during the military helps prepare people for their work in the military. Many participants talked about their oath to protect their country. The training and skills learned during time in the service equipped people to be able to protect; however, as one participant described below, it is difficult to turn off the military mindset for some people. Veteran 022 shared his struggles coming home between deployments where he would drink alcohol in excess. He described one night when he was intoxicated and got into a fight:
… by the next morning, that man died, and I woke up and got arrested for it, and that was the end of my whole life … looking at so many years, 35 years, and I was like—whatever happened to self-defense, whatever happened to defending somebody that they can’t defend themselves? And I thought that was what the military taught me, and they gave me tools to defend people, and I know that the oath says that we’re supposed to defend the country from all enemies, foreign and domestic, and I thought this was a domestic enemy, and I guess I didn’t look at the equation all the way through. Vet 022
Moving between military and civilian life can present challenges. Although study participants discussed their use of substances as a way to cope with these challenges, it is likely that the substance use further complicated an already challenging circumstance.
In summary, alcohol and drug use leads many people into the criminal justice system. Veterans are no exception. When examining the conditions surrounding drug and alcohol use among veterans, however, study participants identified drug and alcohol use being triggered by stressful life events including trauma encountered during the military, interpersonal stressors during and after deployments, and difficulty transitioning to civilian life. Additionally, some study participants identified having problematic drug and alcohol use prior to their military experience and continuing to have substance use problems following their time in the service.
A second cause of criminal justice involvement identified by military veterans is difficulty adjusting to life after serving in the military. Of the study participants, 27 of 28 reported difficulty adjusting after service, and five study participants identified difficulty adjusting after service as the direct cause of their criminal justice involvement. Whereas participants discussed difficulty adjusting to civilian life leading to drug and alcohol use, as noted above, here participants identified difficulty adjusting as the reason they were arrested. Adjusting to civilian life was hardest for people who could not find meaningful work or yearned for the structure and accountability inherent in the military. Veteran 006 provided one example of his struggle after returning from two tours of duty. He stated:
… in Afghanistan you are, like, the top dogs … you’re walking around, you’re the one with the guns and everything and then you come back and you have … like there’s no respect for the law here … cops here are more standoffish to you … coming from the military and everything, like, if somebody’s standoffish to you, you’re straight-up like fight or flight … I have, like, bad emotions, like anger, fear, like, I don’t really have happiness. It’s like numb, anger or fear, and if something happens, it’s fight or flight instantly. Vet 006
This participant went on to describe his dissatisfaction with work after being discharged from the service. “I ran a dining facility in Afghanistan. That’s a really big job … coming back here … it’s like, ‘Wow, I’m flipping pancakes at IHOP’ … there’s no satisfaction to it after doing this.” The transition following service including the day-to-day duties of life and civilian jobs, particularly when there were stark differences, created barriers for smooth transitions. This finding was further supported by focus group participants who suggested trouble arises when transitioning “from a high-adrenaline situation to low—to the mendacity of getting a job, paying the bills, dealing with the wife and kids, and what they come into is a real tumultuous situation because they’re having to make a priority switch.” Anger, low frustration tolerance, and boredom may result and lead to high-risk-taking behaviors, assault, or battery.
Study participants identified a way of thinking or mindset that they developed during their service experience that was hard to change after discharge. When discussing study results with the focus groups, focus group participants called this concept a “portable culture.” Veterans learn a way of thinking and interacting with the world. When a person leaves the service, that mindset travels with you:
… you can take it back and forth with you, and that’s hard … the transition from being with the guys, knowing what the lines are, what the protocol is, you know, ranks or whatever. And then transitioning to civilian life, you know, you don’t carry much of that—a lot of us don’t want to carry some of the good things from that culture to this culture. Vet focus group
Study participants were aware of the differences between military and civilian culture. Some merged the two cultures; they lived as a civilian with a military mindset. For example, one participant said:
… my way of thinking’s always been a military way … I don’t like nonsense. If I seen that you BS’ing somebody, I’m gonna interrupt and then I just—and sometimes I don’t know when to stop … that’s why I get in a whole lot of trouble. Vet 001
Other participants recognized differences or changes in mindset based on their appraisal of the same behaviors during their time in the military and after service. Veteran 012 demonstrated this shift in the quote below:
I never drank and drove while I was in the service. I mean we always get cabs and stuff like that. And some—we had a designated driver when we would go. I mean I guess the only thing I can really say is just I feared failure then, you know, a lot more than I guess I would now. I mean, I’m just a regular old civilian now. Vet 012
Less clear from these data is the sense of agency that veterans have after they are discharged from the military. Do they have a choice whether or not they carry pieces of military culture with them as they adjust to being a civilian? Is the culture so inherent for some that there is no choice? Although study participants did have an awareness of the differences between military and civilian cultures, it is not clear if cultural differences are noticeable to all veterans and to what extent there is awareness of some of the more subtle differences in culture. It is also unclear when and how these cultural differences lead to difficulty adjusting to civilian life. Military experience is a strength for some people. The tools and mindset acquired through military service facilitates successful and productive careers for many (Bouffard, 2005). For participants in this study, military culture and training complicated an already stressful period of transition, which contributed to criminal justice involvement.
A final salient contributor to criminal justice involvement is economic disadvantage. For purposes of this study, economic disadvantage includes situations where veterans attribute their criminal justice involvement to being homeless, without work or resources, or generally unable to pay bills and manage financial affairs. When discussing the events leading up to arrest, nine participants identified the stress of finances being a major contributor to breaking the law. For example, Veteran 002 stated “I was poor. Well, I’m still poor. And I didn’t have any work at the time and it was a circumstance that I hadn’t planned.” Similarly, Veteran 008 and 015 reports, respectively, “I was down on my luck with family bills … We were fixing to be evicted, my wife and I, so I busted some bad checks, you know, to pay bills” and “I was out of work for a few years, and it was rough.” Participants felt they had limited options for meeting their needs. Some of these study participants received honorable discharges and were eligible for benefits. In some cases, benefits were denied and the participant did not follow-up with reasons for denial while others never tried to obtain benefits or resources. Thus, participants reported writing fraudulent checks, stealing money and credit cards, selling goods illegally (e.g., copper, counterfeit purses), and not paying child support due to financial hardship.
Participants generally talked about economic hardship as a period of time they encountered due to unemployment or under-employment. However, some participants identified their change in lifestyle leading to economic hardship. For example, “… they [military] get you used to a certain life and then when you can’t afford that life anymore … the Army pays very, very well,” Vet 018. Pay, even when employed, was less than what was received during military service for some people. Rather than adjusting to the differences in pay and lifestyle, some of our study participants took illegal measures to compensate for the pay gap (e.g., retail theft or burglary).
Military veterans in this study identified alcohol and drug use, difficulty adjusting after the service, and economic disadvantage as the main contributors to their criminal justice involvement. Although alcohol and drug use is quite common among populations involved in the criminal justice system (Kubiak et al., 2006), veterans reported distinct pathways leading to their problematic substance use that may be unique. The Institute of Medicine (2012) recently characterized military substance misuse as a “public health crisis.” More than 25% of 18 to 25 year olds in the military engage in problematic alcohol use compared to 16% of civilians in the same age group (Bray et al., 2006). Heavy drinking among military personnel rose more than 25% from 1998 to 2008 (Bray et al., 2006), while an estimated 12% of service members report illicit substance use including misuse of prescription drugs (Institute of Medicine, 2012).
With the high prevalence of substance use among military personnel and the clear link between substance misuse and criminal justice involvement, it is important to understand what contributes to problematic substance use in order to develop preventative and early-stage intervention models to reduce the risk of incarceration among veterans. Participants in this study found substance misuse to be caused or exacerbated by trauma they encountered in the military, difficulty adjusting to civilian life, and relational stress. In order to treat and reduce problematic substance use, it is important to address the conditions surrounding problematic use through evidence-based approaches. Given that an estimated 20% of veterans from the most recent conflicts report symptoms of PTSD, major depression, or TBI (RAND Corporation, 2008), when returning home, it may be important to encourage integrated treatment aimed at addressing substance use and mental illness simultaneously.
In addition to substance use, veterans in this study found economic hardship to be a major contributor to their arrests. Economic hardship, and poverty in particular, are risk factors for criminal justice involvement among the civilian population (Brown & Males, 2011; Ludwig, Duncan, & Hirschfield, 2001; Wacquant, 2001). It is well established that veterans are at a high risk of homelessness (Fargo et al., 2012. Veterans with PTSD are also at risk of economic hardship (Larson & Norman, 2014). Evidence suggests, however, that the risk for poverty for veterans with PTSD is reduced with the use of U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits (Murdoch, van Ryn, Hodges, & Cowper, 2005), but in seeking care, particularly for mental health needs, veterans face stigma, which prevents some from receiving disability for mental disorders, including PTSD (Ben-Zeev, Corrigan, Britt, & Langford, 2012; Pietrzak, Johnson, Goldstein, Malley, & Southwick, 2009). Reducing stigma for treatment and increasing veteran use of treatment may indirectly prevent criminal justice involvement for some veterans.
It is not uncommon for veterans to experience challenges when adjusting to civilian life following their discharge from the military (Morin, 2011). Participants in this study, in fact, found that difficulties in adjusting post service contributed to their criminal justice involvement. These difficulties were particularly salient for people who were involuntarily discharged from the military; having less than an honorable discharge seemed to engender particular stresses on veterans. Moreover, it may not be readily apparent for new veterans what resources and services they need at the time of discharge, or how to obtain them. Policymakers might consider providing periodic post-discharge outreach for up to five or more years following discharge to assist veterans in knowing what resources are available, how best to access those resources, and to overcome perceptions of stigma. It may also be important to provide preventive services for a period after involuntary discharge, especially when these veterans lack access to other services, as their discharge status may foreclose VA benefits, for example.
Criminal justice policymakers should also work to recognize the characteristics of offenders with military experience and accommodate the needs to best serve the goals of public safety and rehabilitation. In collaboration with the VA and using the sequential intercept model (Munetz & Griffin, 2006) as a guide, criminal justice policymakers can work to intervene with veterans along the criminal justice continuum to reduce arrest, prevent incarceration, and enhance community re-entry. Veterans treatment courts have drawn on models of other specialized courts and show promise in coordinating services for these offenders, maintaining accountability and making use of some aspects of military culture to serve criminal justice system aims. Little research is available, however, on what distinguishes these courts from other specialized legal forums or the precise mechanisms these courts employ that may affect the outcomes of veterans’ criminal cases. However, veterans treatment courts can connect service-eligible veterans with resources, social services, and treatments.
When interpreting the results of this study, it is important to keep in mind key limitations. First, this study offers an exploratory look at why veterans believe they have come into contact with the criminal justice system. There may be bias in their reporting, including omission of information they did not want to share with the researchers. Second, these interviews were conducted at one point in time and perspectives can and do change over time. We attempted to engage participants a second time through a follow-up focus group; however, most participants did not attend the focus group. Finally, these results are not meant to generalize to all veterans who have been arrested. This study was intended to gather an in-depth analysis of veterans’ perspectives. Additional research of greater sample size is needed to examine how applicable these findings are to other veterans who have been arrested.
The results discussed in this paper reflect the perspectives of veterans in this study and may not be representative of the larger group of veterans. In order to test the generalizability of these findings, additional exploratory research is needed. The results presented in this manuscript were used to develop a structured interview of standardized measures. A larger group of veterans will complete the structured interview and be compared to civilians in order to improve our understanding of the causes and contributors of criminal justice involvement unique to veterans. These findings will inform interventions needed to keep veterans from entering the criminal justice system and recidivating.
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Kelli E. Canada, PhD, LCSW, is an Assistant Professor at the University of Missouri, School of Social Work and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Missouri. She received her Ph.D. in Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. Dr. Canada is a mental health services researcher who investigates mental health service delivery and intervention with vulnerable populations within the criminal justice system. Current and past projects include studies on crisis intervention teams in policing and corrections and mental health and veterans treatment courts. She also has over a decade of experience working as a social worker in direct service provision with adults with mental illnesses, clinical supervision with graduate students and entry-level social workers, and administration. She is also the co-founder and co-director of the School of Social Work’s Integrative Behavioral Health Clinic in Columbia, Missouri.
Clark Peters, PhD, MSW, JD, is an associate professor at the University of Missouri School of Social Work and Truman School of Public Affairs, focusing his work primarily on child welfare, adolescents in state care, and juvenile justice. He is also is a Policy Fellow at the Institute of Public Policy, holds a courtesy appointment at the University of Missouri School of Law, and is a Faculty Director of Youth Development at the Center for Social Development at Washington University is St. Louis. As a Skadden Fellow at the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, he represented youth in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems in civil rights actions. He has presented, taught, and written widely on issues of juvenile justice, foster care, and child welfare. His current research work focuses on youths in foster care, asset building, and youth engagement, and appears in Social Work, the Missouri Law Review, Journal of Public Child Welfare, and the Children and Youth Services Review.
We would like to acknowledge David Albright as a member of the research team and thank him for his contribution to data collection and analysis.