Helping heroes

Jeremy BeechamJeremy Beecham on amending the Offender Rehabilitation Bill to pilot Veterans’ Courts in the UK

“I am not a bleeding-heart liberal!”

So declared Robert M McDonald, former Prosecuting Attorney in Arkansas and sometime official in its prison service, at a recent seminar in Newcastle-upon-Tyne on Veterans’ Treatment Courts. 

My home city has a connection with Little Rock, capital of Bill Clinton’s home state, which sent several people actively engaged with the criminal justice system to participate in the event. It also sent a powerful video presentation from a distinguished judge who presides over both the Veterans’ Court and the Criminal Court, from which veterans can be referred if convicted of crimes other than the most serious (i.e. those for which a non-custodial sentence would not be possible).

By sheer coincidence, the North East of England is perhaps the most appropriate part of the UK for which something along the lines of the US experience could be piloted. The region is proportionately the largest source of recruitment for the armed services, has many ex-service personnel living in it, and has already initiated work on the health needs of the ex-service community.  

The region’s Joint Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee published a report on the mental health of veterans in 2011, identifying a wide range of issues in which collaboration between agencies is needed. Local authorities, the MoD, DWP, the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), the NHS in its new manifestations, and voluntary sector organisations all need to combine to identify ex-service personnel and address the problems which many face on their return to civilian life. Mental health disorders for veterans in the 16-44 age group are threefold that of the UK population, and combat stress referrals have risen by two thirds in the past few years.

Estimates of the numbers of veterans vary but even if those of NOMS at the lower end of the range are correct, 3-5% of the national prison population may be veterans; and many more will have been before the courts and received non-custodial community or probation sentences. A total of around 20,000.

The US has some 20m veterans, around five times the number in the UK, and in the last five years every State has established Veterans’ Courts. The offender can be referred from the trial court and is required to attend monthly so that progress can be assessed. A veteran mentor is appointed, and systematic efforts made to help the offender deal with ongoing problems, with mental health issues, substance abuse, lack of housing, skills or a job, family breakdown addressed by the relevant agencies. An offender’s failure to co-operate will lead to recall by the trial court and the possible imposition of a custodial sentence. 

The system has proved remarkably successful. The court in Buffalo, in New York State, has a 100% success rate in avoiding reoffending. In Minnesota meanwhile, the rate has fallen sharply for 83% of those participating.

The potential savings are also considerable. In the analagous system of US drugs courts, around $5,700 were saved per participant. When even Texas – also not known as a stronghold of bleeding-heart liberals – is looking across its justice system for more cost-effective approaches than imprisonment, it is surely time for the UK to extend the reach of the military covenant by piloting Veterans’ Courts. Beginning, I suggest, with the North East. 

The justice minister, Lord McNally expressed sympathy with the idea when I first floated it on the floor of the Lords, and his ministerial colleague Damian Green has agreed to discuss the proposal with Blaydon MP Dave Anderson. But to give it a bit more urgency and secure a commitment to proceed, I will tomorrow formally move an amendment to the Offender Rehabilitation Bill. Those men and women who serve our country under arms deserve no less.

Lord Jeremy Beecham is Shadow Justice Minister in the House of Lords 

Published 10th June 2013

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