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How Virginia supports its most vulnerable veterans?

Two women sitting at a news desk. The woman on the right is wearing a grey dress and blue cardigan. The woman on the left is wearing a blue top.
Elijah Hedrick
VPM News Focal Point
Donna Harrison with Virginia’s Department of Veterans Services discusses resources for veterans in the criminal justice system.

Virginia provides special services for veterans entangled in the criminal justice system. Why are those who have served at a higher risk and what’s being done to help those who have served the country? 


ANGIE MILES: To learn about government programs and support for veterans who are reentering society after active duty or after a period of incarceration, we welcome Donna Harrison, Housing and Criminal Justice Director at the Virginia Department of Veteran Services. She coordinates services for veterans involved in the criminal justice system and those experiencing homelessness as well. Thank you for being with us.

DONNA HARRISON: Thank you for having me.

So, speaking with incarcerated veterans, the number one thing that I am hearing from them is that they feel that there was not enough support in transitioning from active duty to coming back to civilian life, and that caused some problems for them with substance abuse, committing crimes and that sort of thing. Things have changed a little bit though since the long ago when there was nothing for veterans transitioning. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Yeah, so for veterans that are coming out now or coming from active duty and transitioning to the community. The US Department of Veteran Affairs or the VA has the Transition Assistance Program. So this program is really, it's been around since maybe the early 90s, and so individuals can now get connected to services and resources in the community, and the VA is doing a better job now of trying to connect those veterans. And so that's more on the veteran side. On the state side, the Virginia Department of Veteran Services, which is our agency, helps connect those veterans to different community resources as well. And so that's how we kind of help fill the gap for those veterans now.

Virginia Veteran and Family Support is your program. How long have you been around and about how many veterans do you serve?

So Virginia Veteran and Family Support started as Virginia Wounded Warrior Program in 2008, and we did a rebranding. And so we serve... Our agency serves close to 500,000 veterans a year, but we serve, Virginia Veteran Family Support serves about close to 500 veterans a year. So our program is specific for veterans that are vulnerable, usually veterans that are experiencing behavioral health crisis, that are homeless, that need a connection to services, we really help fill the gap for the VA, for individuals that are not eligible for the VA. Then they usually come through our program and we help connect them to services in the community.

So you don't provide direct services, but you connect them--


With places where they can get help?

That's Correct.

Okay. Now, one thing that has changed over the years is the way veterans or some veterans experience the criminal justice system itself. I know it was 2008 when Buffalo New York judge, Robert Russell, realized that a lot of veterans coming before his bench had addiction issues, had mental and emotional health issues, and he started the first veterans treatment court, but now they're popping up everywhere. Does Virginia have veterans treatment courts?

Yes. So Virginia does have veteran treatment court dockets, we call them here in Virginia. We have about eight in Virginia now. They started in 2015. And so they're structured like drug courts, behavioral health dockets, but they're a little bit different in that. They try to highlight military service, veteran culture and they're embedded within those dockets and so the VA sits at the table. Our Virginia veteran family support veteran justice specialists sit at that table. And so that whole treatment team pulls together to connect and individuals to treatment and to services in the community. And so it's really a way to try to divert people from the criminal justice system. It helps connect them to treatment. The key part of those programs that's very different from drug courts and behavioral health dockets is that they use peer mentors. And so that's the difference, a little bit of difference in those courts as opposed to some of those veterans, some of those drug courts.

One of the incarcerated veterans I spoke with was a Marine who said that he felt in his case, he had a harsher sentence imposed because the judge was also a veteran and felt he should have known better and he was holding him to a higher standard. But it sounds like that's the opposite of the aim of these diversionary veterans treatment courts.

Yes. So we're really trying to encourage our jurisdictions, our judges, to try to connect those veterans and start those veteran treatment courts. Even if they are veteran judges, actually a lot of times veteran judges are our advocates and our champions for those courts. I think the key here is making sure they're conducting veteran identification to make sure they're connecting those veterans to those jurisdictions that have those courts. But also helping encourage our jails and our criminal justice partners to identify veterans wherever they are in the system so that we can get those veteran treatment courts started.

And these courts aren't meant to say, well, if you're a veteran, you're better than other people, but that you're different. You have a special set of circumstances that need to be considered. For example, if there is post-traumatic stress from time in the service, correct?

Correct. So I think a lot of times what the veteran treatment courts are trying to do is connect those veterans directly to treatment related to whatever their needs are. So whether that's post-traumatic stress or depression or even traumatic brain injuries, we see that often with this population. So, connecting them to the right treatment services is the goal of those veteran treatment courts. And also making sure they have veteran peer mentors to help guide them along the way and connecting them to federal, state, and local resources. And with our program at Virginia Veteran Family Support, if someone's not eligible for the VA and are not able to receive treatment, we have a way to connect them directly to treatment providers in the community and even fund treatment in some of those cases as well.

No doubt. Really helpful information for veterans and families who are just encountering the criminal justice system. But what about those who are already incarcerated, someone who's been in the system for 20 years and just recently, for example, got a diagnosis of PTSD related to the military service. Is there any direct route for them to be reconsidered by the courts?

So it's a little harder for them to get out of that criminal justice system once they're that deep in the system and they're incarcerated. We've seen cases where veterans have been able to petition attorneys to try to bring their case back to court, but some of the services that are now available to veterans that are incarcerated helps connect them once they're released or if they get granted parole or even pardoned. It's a way for them to get connected to those resources pre-release. And our program, our justice involved services program helps connect those veterans as well.

Okay, so those not incarcerated, but involved with the criminal justice system, you are the one who is overseeing what happens with those folks, correct?

So, it's a partnership. So, our Virginia veteran and Family Support Justice of all services program serves veterans in the criminal justice system, whether they're in veteran treatment dockets or if they're incarcerated in jail or prison or out on probation or parole supervision. Our veteran justice specialists work directly with those veterans prior to release to connect them to housing, to employment and to treatment. And we work with our VA partners as well, who also have a justice outreach program.

All right, you said that key word housing, affordable housing is a challenge for a lot of people these days, but that is a special part of your job helping to connect veterans with homes. Talk about that service.

So yes, so housing is our number one need for our justice involved veterans, our veterans going through the criminal justice system and some of our veterans that are coming through our Virginia Veteran and Family Support program, it's usually our number one need. What we're seeing is a lot of times with our justice involved veterans, they are being, sorry I messed that up. But they're being, a lot of times, those landlords are using their criminal background as a way to deny them housing. And so what we're trying to do is encourage our landlords to maybe review their tenant selection plans, to look at other ways that they can house veterans, particularly those in the criminal justice system. We're seeing a lot of barriers just in housing in general with the affordable housing costs. We're seeing a lot of those barriers just for our veterans in general when it comes to housing.

And of course anyone involved with criminal justice system is subject to judgments by the general public, but maybe they deserve to be judged a little differently given that they have served their country as well.


All right. Thank you so much for joining us. We've been speaking with Donna Harrison with the Virginia Department of Veteran Services.

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Angie Miles, Host/Producer, anchors and hosts VPM News Focal Point and special broadcasts.
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