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Commission will study why veterans are more likely than nonveterans to get in trouble with the law

A preliminary report found that many risk factors were linked — for example, symptoms of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress can lead to substance abuse.
New York's 87th Veterans Day Parade Honors WWII Veterans
A Vietnam veteran holds up an American flag and a POW flag at the Veterans Day Parade in New York City on Nov. 11, 2005.Spencer Platt / Getty Images file

A think tank says that military veterans are more likely than the rest of the public to be arrested and has launched a new commission to determine why and how the problem can be addressed.

A preliminary report released Tuesday by the Council on Criminal Justice think tank found that about one-third of veterans say they have been arrested at least once, compared to fewer than one-fifth of all nonveterans, citing Justice Department data from 2015. 

The report, called the Preliminary Assessment of Veterans in the Criminal Justice System and released Tuesday, also said Justice Department data showed that about 8% of all U.S. inmates, or about 181,500, were military veterans

The Veterans Justice Commission, also launched Tuesday by the Council on Criminal Justice, will report back in two years with its findings and its recommendations on preventing veteran incarceration. The commission will be chaired by Chuck Hagel, a former defense secretary and Republican senator from Nebraska, and it will include former Defense Secretary and White House chief of staff Leon Panetta, a former sergeant major in the Marine Corps, other former military and criminal justice professionals and two formerly incarcerated veterans.  

The preliminary assessment identified multiple risk factors that contribute to incarceration for veterans, including combat-related trauma and post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injuries, substance abuse, adverse childhood experiences and sexual trauma while in the military. 

The assessment also found that many of the risk factors were interrelated — for example, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury can lead to substance abuse.

Veterans serving time are, on average, 51 or 52 years old, while incarcerated civilians without military backgrounds are generally 38 to 40 years old. The assessment said that veterans who served in the military after Sept. 11, 2001, even though they may be under 50, could be at higher risk of incarceration, in part because many had multiple overseas deployments. 

According to the Justice Department data, incarcerated veterans were almost all male (98%), and more than two-thirds (69%) were serving time for violent crimes, compared to 57% of nonveterans in prison.