Ex-soldiers doing time

Charlie Wilson after his release from jail. Photo Caitlyn Quinn
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Are military veterans more likely to end up in the criminal justice system? Caitlyn Quinn reports.

A military veteran said that the three years he spent in the defence force contributed to his criminal conviction that occurred after he left the army.

Charlie Wilson spent just under five months in prison for charges related to owning and threatening to use an illegal fire arm.

“The day that you walk into the defence force the issues are caused… I don’t know how you fix that, but I suppose that’s what we’re coming across,” he said.

He said the training and trauma sustained in the defence force were major causes for why military veterans end up in the justice system after they are discharged.

“They are taught to deal with things with firearms or high violence,” he said. “How do you change that for somebody?”

Mr Wilson estimates that “probably close to 25 per cent” of inmates that he served time with in jail were ex-soldiers but said it’s hard to know for sure.

“I was in prison with guys I served with,” he said.

There are no figures available to determine how many military veterans are currently serving time in Australian prisons. Former East-Timor peacekeeper and veteran advocate, John McNeil said that it was common for veterans to wind up in jail.

“Out of the people I’ve served with, a good portion of them have had some run ins with the law,” he said.

Veteran advocate, John McNeil. Photo by Caitlyn Quinn

Mr McNeil has worked as a veteran advocate for over eight years and is currently working with prisons to assist ex-service men and women with their claims with the Department of Veteran Affairs and to provide other services.

“Our role would be to go into prisons and make sure their pensions are in place, their compensations all ready to go so when they do get released from prison we can turn on all their payments so they’ve got money to move on with their life,” he said.

“Depending on what they’re in for, if money was one of that factors we can try and fix that.”

Mr Wilson said, “A lot of [veterans] are probably in there because of the minefield of DVA in its entirety to start off with.”

He suggested a court system separate to the civilian judicial system that could focus more on rehabilitation rather than incarceration and provide specialist services that military veterans need.

“Just because you’re a veteran doesn’t mean you should get a get-out-of-jail free card but you should probably be entitled to a little bit more than the local meth dealer.”

He said military veterans are “very complex characters with very complex psychological conditions” who require specialised services that Victorian jails are not able to provide.

“They need a second chance and someone to put them on the right path,” he said.

Professor of Criminal Law and Criminal Law Theory, Dr Arlie Loughnan said that an individual’s status as a military veteran should be taken into consideration.

“When we’re thinking about veterans we’re thinking about people who served our society and in that sense who have maybe had the experience of war or conflict because they were asked to serve on Australia’s behalf,” she said.

“There is a very significant network of veteran courts in the US and there, the veteran’s courts are oriented towards rehabilitation.”

America’s military veteran incarceration rate has dropped nine per cent from 2004 according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The data also revealed that American ex-service personnel were less likely to enter the justice system than the rest of society.

United States veterans were also recorded as having higher rates of mental health issues such as PTSD and had a higher percentage that were convicted of violent crimes than the rest of the population.

Dr Loughnan said, “rehabilitation is an important aim of criminal justice and even though it’s expensive and time consuming.”

Mr McNeil hopes if the trial he is doing involving Victorian prisons is successful, then he will be able to expand the program but is aware that this relies on funding.

Mr McNeil is the founder and CEO of not for profit organisation, Aussie Veterans, which uses a coffee business to fund programs like the prison initiative.

“If we could see really significant success rates with a group that has a lot of social support, we might see greater social support for programs that are for the more marginalised and the more disadvantaged members of our community,” Dr Loughnan said.