Testimony on Veterans in the Criminal Justice System

Testimony on Veterans in the Criminal Justice System

On Friday, September 18, the NYC Veterans Alliance testified in favor of Introduction 793, a bill proposed by the City Council Committee on Veterans that would create a task force to study and report on veterans in the NYC criminal justice system.

 

This bill appears to be opposed by Mayor de Blasio's administration, although the reasons were not clear based on the administration's testimony at this hearing. The full video of this hearing can be viewed HERE.

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Below is the testimony presented by the Alliance:

My name is Kristen L. Rouse, and I am speaking on behalf of the NYC Veterans Alliance. I am a veteran of the United States Army, I served three tours of duty in Afghanistan, and I have lived in Brooklyn since leaving active duty in 2007.

The NYC Veterans Alliance testified in February in support of establishing a Veterans Treatment Court in Manhattan and, more broadly, the need to ensure that all veterans across the City experience the same measure of justice and access to treatment, no matter which borough. In the final results of the survey of the NYC veterans community we conducted last spring, of the 412 respondents to our question about how important it was to establish a Veterans Treatment Court in Manhattan—398 respondents, nearly 97% of those who answered the question, said that it was important to them, 86% identifying this as either “essential” or “very important.” Yet as of today, still only Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx have functional Veterans Treatment Courts. NYC veterans have been assured that government will establish veterans courts in Staten Island and Manhattan—but today we’re still waiting. On behalf of our community, we respectfully request that the Veterans Committee please provide following my testimony an update on what circumstances are delaying the opening of Veterans Treatment Courts in these two boroughs.

Veterans Treatment Courts are a vital step toward ensuring veterans involved in the criminal justice system have access to the services and support they’ve earned and that can help get them back on the right track. But this is also just one piece of a much larger and complex criminal justice system that can and must work better for veterans. This is why we strongly support Introduction 793 and urge that this Committee and the Council pass it as soon as possible, and that the Mayor sign it into law without delay.

The Task Force Report mandated by this piece of legislation has the potential to produce comprehensive and meaningful data to guide NYC in its understanding and treatment of veterans in the criminal justice system. Having this report posted on the City’s website will further allow organizations serving NYC veterans to better understand and tailor services and resources based on what we hope will be thoroughly researched and accurate data.

Particular emphasis must be on studying and reporting on the needs and resources available to support veterans released from incarceration, helping them to yet again reintegrate into their homes and neighborhoods. Coming home from deployment or active service is challenging the first time, and a veteran coming home from a period of incarceration faces even greater challenges. It is especially important to have wrap-around services and support to ensure these veterans returning from incarceration have the opportunity to find safe and reasonable housing, adequate health and dental care, a decent way to earn a living, and ways to regain a sense of purpose and community in their lives. Successful reintegration is key to ensuring these veterans remain on the right track and do not re-enter the criminal justice system.

Another point of significance should be reporting on incarcerated veterans and their loss of VA benefits because of the degree of crime committed or the duration of their incarceration. Incarcerated veterans may avoid disclosing their veteran status because of the loss of VA payments to them or their family members, and the Task Force Report should include the impacts of this loss of income on the incarcerated veterans’ households, as well as their ability to reintegrate back home successfully upon release. The Report should also include the loss of access to VA healthcare while incarcerated and impacts that may have on veterans. The intersection of veterans involved in the criminal justice system and the VA’s Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO) program should be included in the study, and assess whether more VJO coordinators are needed to assist veterans at Rikers and other detention facilities across the five boroughs.

In closing, we voice our strong support for any effort the city can make to collect the most thoroughly researched and most accurate data possible on NYC’s veterans. Veterans involved in the criminal justice system are those who have lost their personal battles to reintegrate back home following their military service—or, rather, those who we as a city and as a society have most grievously failed to welcome back home. It is essential that we strive to understand and calibrate our government and community resources for these individuals as accurately and as equitably as possible so we do not fail them yet again. For these reasons, we strongly urge the immediate passage of Introduction 793 into law.

On behalf of the NYC Veterans Alliance, I thank you for this opportunity to speak today. Pending your questions, this concludes my testimony.

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