Testimony by the Veteran Advocacy Project on Veterans in the Criminal Justice System

On September 18, our partners at the Veteran Advocacy Project at Urban Justice Center 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 testimony highlighted key points about veterans in the criminal justice system that were vital to expressing the importance of this bill. We encourage our community to take note.

Testimony by Charlotte Heyrman

Intake Advocate, Veteran Advocacy Project at Urban Justice Centerheyrman.jpg

Good afternoon Councilmember Ulrich and members of the Committee on Veterans. My name is Charlotte Heyrman and I am the intake advocate of the Veteran Advocacy Project at the Urban Justice Center. VAP provides free legal services to low-income veterans with a focus on those living with PTS, substance use issues, and traumatic brain injury.  I am testifying in place of Coco Culhane, Director of the Veteran Advocacy Project. Thank you for the opportunity to speak today.

I would like to express my support for Bill No. 793, calling for the creation of a taskforce to study veterans’ interactions with the criminal justice system. Every day at the Veteran Advocacy Project, we see the negative impacts of the criminal justice system in the lives of our clients, and we look forward to the recommendations the task force will present towards lessening these effects. That being said, there is much that can be done for veterans to prevent their initial involvement in the criminal justice system by connecting veterans with benefits they are uniquely entitled to, including access to discharge upgrades. Far too many veterans never see the programs the commissioner spoke of earlier this afternoon, and many are not eligible.

In my work at the Veteran Advocacy Project, I witness the threat the criminal justice system poses in the lives of many of my clients, especially when they are unable to access the benefits they need. In a meeting last week, a veteran awaiting a HUD-VASH voucher showed me photos of the room in a three quarter house he shares with two others. The images on his small phone screen showed three beds squeezed into a narrow room. Socks hung from a makeshift clothesline, a bookshelf sagged and bent under the weight of belongings, and a television perched on the edge of a dresser.  My client pointed out his bunk, the lower one. Around it he had hung sheets, tucking them under his bunkmate’s mattress and a microwave in the corner. “Why are those hung up?” I asked him. “Because of my roommate,” he told me, “He yells and tries to pick fights with me at night, and I worry what I could do if I let him get to me.” He had tried to build a wall.

As a city, we should not be in this situation. We should not relegate our city’s veterans to conditions where someone has to build a fort to protect themselves from an outburst of annoyance, frustration, or anger that could lead to their entrance into the criminal justice system. Through more proactive counseling efforts, better housing initiatives, and timely benefits, this scene can be avoided.

I cannot count how many times I have sat across the table from someone who served in the armed forces and have been asked “Is my service not enough?” It could be a veteran with a less than honorably discharge due to substance use or a mental health diagnosis, or a peacetime veteran of the National Guard. By failing to recognize the service of all veterans, despite service era, discharge status, or period of service, we are all culpable in the answer to that question. This taskforce has the opportunity to study the consequences of these rejections. And the role they play in making a veteran more likely to make mistakes that may involve them in the criminal justice system.

Every week, thick letters arrive in my mailbox from prisons upstate, from Fort Leavenworth, from Rikers. Almost all of them ask what services are available to formerly incarcerated veterans when they return to the city. This taskforce has the ability to answer this question by identifying the existing resources in New York, programs that could assist incarcerated veterans to return, reenter, and succeed in our city. We must acknowledge that the impact of the criminal justice system does not end the day a veteran boards a bus departing from Marcy, Bedford Hills, or Collins Correctional Facility.

We applaud the potential this initiative presents and encourage the taskforce to study what keeps veterans out of the criminal justice system completely and programs that assist formerly incarcerated rejoin and rebuild their lives in this great city.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak today.