For years, veterans who had encounters with the criminal justice system, often as a result of mental health or substance abuse problems, did not receive any special assistance. Many ended up homeless or in prison, and when freed from jail, had no support to help them reenter society and lead productive lives.
Today, two programs led by Anne Dunn and her team from the Veterans Health Administration are helping veterans who have had problems with the law receive the assistance and treatment they need.
The Health Care for Reentry Veterans program provides assessment services for incarcerated veterans and information they can use to plan for life outside prison walls. The program also offers released inmates access to medical, psychiatric and social services as well as employment help.
A second initiative, the Veterans Justice Outreach program, helps veterans who have had interactions with law enforcement or have been jailed briefly for offenses that did not result in prison time. This program involves field staff who work with special veteran treatment courts to keep individuals out of jail and help them with mental health issues, substance abuse problems and housing needs.
These two VA programs under Dunn’s leadership are “transforming how veterans are handled in the justice system and changing the justice system overall,” and they’re having “an enormous positive effect,” said Melissa Fitzgerald, senior director of the nonprofit Justice For Vets.
Robert Russell, presiding judge of the Veterans Treatment Court in Buffalo, New York, said the efforts of Dunn and her team are “reaching a class of veterans who previously may not have engaged with the VA.” By working with the prisons, the courts, law enforcement and the community, he said, Dunn and her team are “providing the delivery of services in a coordinated fashion” that is helping turn lives around.
The programs, part of a larger Obama administration goal of ending homelessness among veterans, focus on the criminal justice system because “incarceration is the single biggest predictor of homelessness among vets,” said William Russo, director of the VA’s office of regulation policy and management.
The team Dunn leads oversees more than 300 field staff. Jessica Blue-Howells designed and now coordinates the reentry program; Sean Clark coordinates the outreach program in the veteran’s community; and Joel Rosenthal directs training for both programs.
Currently, VA specialists working with the Health Care for Reentry Veterans program conduct regular outreach to nearly 1,000 of the more than 1,200 state and federal prisons, and have been in contact with 72,000 veterans since its inception in 2009.
The second initiative, the Veterans Justice Outreach program, conducts interviews with inmates at 1,284 local jails (39 percent of the U.S. total) and works with the nation’s 351 Veterans Treatment Courts. This program has served more than 120,000 veterans since 2009 who got caught up in the early stages of the criminal justice system, including more than 46,000 in fiscal 2015.
Court systems around the country established the Veterans Treatment Courts in cooperation with prosecutors, defense counsels, treatment providers, probation officers and law enforcement personnel to provide assistance to veterans with mental health or substance abuse problems in lieu of incarceration.
Before the treatment courts were established in 2008, the VA did not interact with the justice system, Russell said. And prior to initiating the two programs, Fitzgerald said, the VA didn’t know how many veterans were in the justice system, who they were, where they were or what happened to them after their release.
Russo said the biggest success for Dunn and her team has been reducing recidivism among veterans and providing them with the services they need to have a stable life.
Early data indicates that the treatment courts have significantly reduced recidivism. According to the VA, the arrest rate for veterans who receive care and complete the treatment program overseen by the courts drops by 88 percent from the year before entering the program to the year after getting assistance. Veterans also experience a 30 percent increase in stable housing during the same period.
A psychiatric nurse by training, Dunn worked with Vietnam War veterans and with women prisoners before joining the VA. Her clinical and field experience have been invaluable to managing the justice programs, colleagues said.
Lisa Pape, executive director of the VA’s homeless programs, said Dunn joined the justice programs in their early stages and has significantly expanded them and improved operations.
“Anne sets policy, busts through barriers and lays out the vision of where the program needs to go,” Pape said.
Dunn said the success not only comes from the work of her VA team, but also from many partners, including federal agencies and state and local governments and justice systems.
She said these programs are “making a difference in the lives of veterans and their families,” by “getting the help they need.”