By Dave Baker
Susan Gibbs has no complaints about her cramped, tight workspace in the Waterbury Superior Courthouse. No matter how compact it may be, it is a major upgrade from her former office with the Connecticut Jail Diversion program: her car and a brief case. “Judge [Richard] Damiani actually asked that I be placed here. He’s very pro-veteran,” Gibbs explained. Along with colleague Jessica Marshal, Gibbs is a caseworker for Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO), a federal jail diversion program sponsored by the US Department of Veterans Affairs.
Formed with the intent of offering alternative sentencing and treatment to veterans entering the criminal justice system, VJO operates in every state, with Connecticut employing two specialists and the addition of a third expected within the year. Gibbs and Marshal work closely with existing jail diversion programs and identify veterans who may qualify for their program and VA benefits. The VA employs strict guidelines, stating that veterans who enlisted after 1980 must have served 24 consecutive months and been honorably discharged. Any servicemen in the National Guard must have been deployed – a necessary measure given the US military’s recent level of involvement in the Middle East.
VJO is not a rehabilitation or treatment program; they act as treatment brokers. Working within the courts and prisons, Gibbs and Marshal meet with potential clients in lock up and present possible treatment plans to judges. “The veterans now know us. Many referrals come from word of mouth, but the majority still come from other court providers, other clinical teams within the VA, as well as when we run the arraignment list each morning,” Marshal said. After identifying veterans who are eligible for VA benefits, clients are released with a promise to appear and directed to the VA or other state service providers to receive the aid they need, whether it be housing, healthcare, or substance abuse counseling.
Throughout her career in jail diversion programs, Gibbs has dealt with any offender society has to offer, ranging from those suffering from crippling, prolonged mental illnesses, to habitual DUI or assault cases. Working with veteran offenders, however, presents entirely new challenges. They cannot be lumped in with the general incarcerated population simply because they often present with specific issues. They are a unique, distinguished group facing the same hardship and adversity many offenders do, coupled with the sometimes-jarring transition back into mainstream society. In a recession America where a job hunt can spiral into a personal crusade, the thousands of veterans returning from the Middle East and flooding the job market are having as difficult a time as any finding work. In 2011, unemployment among veterans age 20-24 averaged 30 percent, more than double nonveterans in that demographic. The situation appears even bleaker, as an estimated one million veterans will enter the work force over the next five years.
The harsh realities facing many returning veterans are not being acknowledged by the criminal justice system or the American public. Homelessness is rampant among veterans, accounting for 16 percent of the nation’s homeless population – less than eight percent of all Americans have veteran status. With housing being such a critical issue, Gibbs remains optimistic that homelessness can be combated through programs such as the VA’s Healthcare for Homeless Veterans [HCHV]. “Funding is not an issue right now because there is a big push to provide services for homeless veterans. We work closely the HCHV program. There are a lot of initiatives to end homelessness among veterans.” Working in a jail diversion program, Gibbs and Marshal have encountered a litany of mental health and substance abuse disorders. The stress of military service paired with readjusting to civilian life can trap veterans in a vicious cycle of anxiety, depression, self-medication, all signs of Post-traumatic stress disorder. Gibbs and Marshal observe, especially with returning Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans, the difficulty in rotating back to a less structured life; one that may not include steady employment or a home. “What’s really hard for them is when they’re deployed and serving overseas, they are competent, they have a purpose – especially the guys from Iraq. They’re damaged in a way by the incredible stress they’re under. Then they come back and it’s a hard adjustment. They don’t have people they can relate to – they feel isolated,” Gibbs said.
Veteran offenders present challenges to those within the criminal justice system on how best to handle them. As a whole, they represent a highly disciplined and relatively educated population. Of the 140,000 veterans currently serving sentences in state or federal prisons an overwhelming 91 percent are reported to have a high school diploma or equivalent. However, some judges remain hesitant to release them, finding their extensive military training and, in some cases, instability to be potentially dangerous. While the overall mission of VJO is avoiding the incarceration of their clients, Marshal pointed to VJO’s essential role as educators, advocating for the silent plight of America’s veterans.
“We need to treat them with respect. Giving them hope for the future is one of our main objectives, looking at the human side of things. People can change and they do.”