Sunday, August 01, 2021

The Howard League for Penal Reform’s Inquiry into Former Armed Service Personnel in Prison published its final report recently in the run up to Armed Forces Day on Saturday 25th June:

With official estimates suggesting that English and Welsh prisons hold around 3,000 ex-servicemen, there is public concern as to why those who have served their country go on to offend.

Theories have been put forward that the numbers of ex-servicemen in prison are on the increase, that ex-servicemen may be more likely to end up in prison than the civilian population, that recent action in Iraq and Afghanistan is significantly contributing to the rise of ex-servicemen in prison and that, in particular, it is combat-related trauma which is driving the crime that ex-servicemen commit.

The inquiry has found little or no evidence to justify any of these theories. The numbers of ex-servicemen in prison appear broadly similar to previous estimates, although there is no definitive survey available, and statistics suggest that ex-servicemen are less likely to be in prison than civilians. Ex-servicemen in prison are disproportionately older compared to the general prison population, and have offended many years after discharge. While post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition which does afflict a significant number of service leavers, there is no evidence that PTSD can be directly linked to offending behaviour.

Chair of the inquiry, Sir John Nutting QC, said: “To a degree this inquiry has been involved in a process of ‘myth-busting’. Ex-servicemen are not committing crimes shortly after leaving the plane from Helmand, and it is unlikely that combat trauma is driving criminal behaviour. The reality is that most ex-servicemen resettle into the community without problems but that for some, issues arise later in life which can lead to offending.

“The issues that lead ex-servicemen to offend appear to be much the same as most adult male prisoners, with social exclusion, alcohol misuse and financial problems afflicting both groups.

“While the numbers of ex-servicemen in prison appear stable, evidence from statistical surveys in both England and Wales and the United States show that ex-servicemen are more likely to be serving sentences for violent and sexual offences than the general prison population.

“Given the serious nature of these offences, it is therefore welcome that there is a huge amount of support available in the community for ex-servicemen. As well as resettlement provision on discharge provided by the government, there are over 2,000 service charities dedicated to helping ex-servicemen in crisis.

“The problem our inquiry has encountered is that ex-servicemen in prison are often not aware of the help available. As they have offended many years after discharge, they have effectively ‘dropped off the radar’ of those that can assist them. It is therefore imperative that those working in the criminal justice system can identify ex-servicemen and help them access the specialist support that is out there.”

In order to address this problem, the inquiry has made a number of recommendations. These include the expansion of the current free Veterans Helpline provided by the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency (SPVA). The main focus of this Helpline is to provide advice on matters such as pensions and operates during the working day from Monday to Friday. The inquiry recommends a significant expansion of this service into a crisis helpline, open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, which would include ex-servicemen who can advise fellow veterans in crisis and point them in the direction of the many organisations which exist to help them.

The inquiry also recommends an expansion of existing efforts among the police, probation and prison services to identify ex-servicemen at the earliest possible point and put them in touch with ex-service organisations that can help them. In particular, the successful Veterans in Custody scheme should be extended to every prison in England and Wales.

Further information

The inquiry took oral and written evidence, visited a number of prisons and projects, interviewed 29 former ex-servicemen in prison at length and spent several days in the United States examining that country’s handling of veterans in the criminal justice system.

The most comprehensive exercise at estimating the number of ex-service personnel in prison was conducted in 2010 in a joint study by the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Justice. This found that approximately 3.5 per cent of the prison population on any given day have served in the Armed Forces.

The statistical breakdown also demonstrated that some 51 per cent of ex-servicemen in prison are over the age of 45 years, and 29 per cent are over the age of 55 (which compares to 9 per cent of the general prison population being aged 50 years or over). A similar pattern of age can be found in statistics from the United States and was encountered by the inquiry during its prison-based interviews.

On categories of offending, official statistics report that 32.9 per cent of ex-servicemen in prison are serving sentences for ‘violence against the person’, compared to 28.6 per cent of the general prison population. 25 per cent of ex-servicemen in prison are serving sentences for sexual offences, compared to 11 per cent of the general prison population. Not only was the disproportionate frequency of violent and sexual offences reflected in the inquiry’s interviews, but again the same patterns can also be found in the United States veteran in prison population.