Should military veterans get a break when they are sentenced for crimes?
As more vets return home from combat, a growing number of state and federal judges say they should. Judges are handing out sentences of probation coupled with psychological treatment for crimes that would normally land defendants in prison.
“We dump all kinds of money to get soldiers over there and train them to kill, but we don’t do anything to reintegrate them into our society,” says John L. Kane, a federal judge in Denver.
Two weeks ago Kane sentenced a former Iraq war vet, John Brownfield (pictured in Iraq in 2004), to probation rather than prison after he pleaded guilty to illegally selling tobacco to prison inmates when he worked as a correctional officer in 2007. Kane did so despite the fact that Brownfield’s lawyer and the prosecution initially recommended that he sentence Brownfield to a year in prison.
Here’s a WSJ Law Journal piece, which details the proliferation of special criminal courts being set up across the country to keep vets out of prison as well as examples of leniency by federal judges. Click for Kane’s absorbing 30-page sentencing memo in the Brownfield case.
The phenomenon is stirring up controversy. Some legal experts say singling out veterans risks establishing a two-tier system of justice.
“Because you happen to be a veteran should be insufficient grounds” for automatic leniency, says Dan Markel, a law professor at Florida State University.
But some judges say prisons aren’t equipped to rehabilitate veterans, many of whom return home from war zones with behavioral and psychological problems that can lead to crimes.
Proponents also say individuals who risked their lives to serve the country deserve leniency, a position many judges have taken since the days of the 13 original colonies, law professors say. Also, studies by the Justice Department and other agencies suggest that defendants who are veterans pose a significantly lower risk of committing future offenses compared with non-veterans.
Brownfield, a 25-year-old former U.S. Air Force firefighter who did two tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, came home a changed man. “I was in a destructive state, heavily drinking, mad at the world,” he says.
As part of his probation, the resident of Cañon City, Colo., must go to counseling, can’t have alcohol and must follow a strict budget to ensure he doesn’t go into debt. He says he’s grateful he will be able to watch his fiancée give birth to their second child in April. “I’m glad the judge gave me a chance to get help,” he says.