Keeping Service Members Transitioning into the Community Out of the Criminal Legal System

More than 25 percent of all veterans have difficulty transitioning from military to civilian life

From Council of Criminal Justice  

Roughly 245,000 service members transition from military to civilian life each year. While most successfully rejoin their families and communities, more than a quarter of all veterans express difficulties with the transition. Among post-9/11 veterans, a significantly higher proportion—44%—experience readjustment challenges, struggling with housing insecurity, health issues, financial difficulties, and other problems as they turn in their uniforms and begin new roles in civilian society.

Research shows that the challenges veterans face during transition can lead to contact with the criminal justice system. The military has made important changes in support of more successful reintegration, including the creation of the Transition Assistance Program (TAP). Despite these efforts, transition is still not treated as a priority by the Department of Defense. The result is a fragmented and under-resourced system that leaves too many service members ill-prepared for civilian life. This lack of preparation increases their vulnerability to involvement in the criminal justice system. 

Consider the experiences of veterans who have moved through the military in recent years. Many joined the armed forces following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a period when our country experienced the biggest jump in military recruitment since Pearl Harbor. These men and women comprise a new generation of veterans, a group that is younger, more racially diverse, and more likely to have experienced trauma prior to their military enlistment, all factors associated with an increased likelihood of encountering the criminal justice system.

During their service, this generation of veterans underwent historically high rates of multiple deployments and combat exposure,6 experiences that have been consistently linked to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) As many struggled with the effects of these conditions, the military increasingly turned to prescription drug treatment, as evidenced by the fourfold increase in the prescription of drugs for service members between 2001 and 2009. That reliance reflects the military’s shortage of mental health workers, which requires service members to endure long waits for cognitive behavioral therapy and other care. One recent report found that 43% of behavioral healthcare jobs in the Defense Health Agency were vacant as of January 2023. The shift to heavier use of prescription drugs came in tandem with the documented culture of excessive alcohol use within the military.

Each of these factors–PTSD, TBI, and Substance Use Disorder (SUD)–are linked to poor performance during service and criminal justice involvement after it. In recent years, commanders have increasingly relied on other than honorable discharges to deal with performance issues, using these discharges to quickly remove service members whom they believe may jeopardize mission readiness. Just 1% of World War II veterans received an other than honorable discharge, but 5.8% of post-9/11 service members received the designation, representing more than 100,000 veterans discharged between 2003 and 2013.

As a result of the rising use of this discharge characterization, a much larger share of post-9/11 veterans start their transition to civilian life without access to health care and other services from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). This denial is in direct conflict with legislation passed by Congress that codified the receipt of VA services for veterans with other than honorable discharges. Lacking benefits and care, post-9/11 veterans who received an other than honorable discharge have been found to be at increased risk of homelessness, suicide, and criminal justice system involvement. For example, while other than honorable discharges comprise approximately 6% of all discharges, they make up 18% of the discharges held by incarcerated veterans.

“The Commission understands that there is a cost associated with adopting these changes, but we also recognize the high cost of failing to do so.”

While other than honorable discharges are disproportionately represented among justice-involved veterans, those not assigned such a discharge still face a variety of other challenges in their transition out of the military. One reason may be that 70% of recent service members start their transition process less than a year before their separation from the armed forces, a timeline deemed too short under the military’s own guidelines. In addition, many service members do not attend a class the military offers to ease their return to civilian life. In identifying service members’ readiness for transition, the military classified 41% of all service members who transitioned between April 2021 and March 2022 as not fully prepared. Though a classification of “not fully prepared” is supposed to mandate attendance at a two-day class as part of the Transition Assistance Program (TAP), 22% of those identified as the least prepared to transition do not attend this required course. Even if they do attend, it is not clear that the program is effective, as TAP lacks a robust evaluation.

Given that many post-9/11 veterans lack VA services and did not receive much formal transitional support, it is not surprising that they are more likely than previous generations to report difficulties with their reentry to civilian life. They are also more likely than non-veterans to end up in prison. This sets them apart from previous generations of veterans, who were less likely than their civilian counterparts to become incarcerated. In response to these troubling findings, the Council on Criminal Justice Veterans Justice Commission has developed three recommendations designed to improve the transition from military to civilian life, ensure more service members transition successfully, and reduce the number of veterans who land in the criminal justice system. Each recommendation is accompanied by a summary of findings as well as a list of detailed actions to guide implementation. To be clear: The Commission understands that there is a cost associated with adopting these changes, but we also recognize the high cost of failing to do so. One estimate puts the cost of violent crime stemming from post-9/11 combat exposure at $26.4 billion. Combined with public expenditures associated with veterans’ additional mental and physical health conditions, this figure represents just a sliver of the total costs incurred by federal, state, and local jurisdictions as they contend with the legacy of the military’s insufficient support for the transition phase.


The Department of Defense should make successful transition a core priority mission and ensure this mission is conducted in coordination with the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Labor, the Office of Personnel Management, the Small Business Administration, the Department of Education, and state and local public and private veterans agencies and Veteran Service Organizations/Non-Governmental Organizations.

The Department of Defense should integrate evidence-based practices into its management of performance issues and specified military justice cases to promote the retention, treatment, and healing of active-duty and National Guard/Reserve service members.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) should adopt regulations that follow the plain text of the 1944 GI Bill by providing VA eligibility to all former service members not discharged under dishonorable conditions, and Congress should mandate automated, nationwide enrollment in VA health care for all eligible transitioning service members.