Research into ex-service personnel in the criminal justice system | Nacro
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Research into ex-service personnel in the criminal justice system

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In August 2021 Nacro, in partnership with the University of Northampton (UON), was commissioned by Forces in Mind Trust (FiMT) to conduct research into the barriers to identification and uptake of support for ex-service personnel and their families in the criminal justice systems of England, Wales, and Scotland.

Our research explores the strengths and weaknesses of the current identification processes across England, Wales and Scotland, and identifies barriers to uptake of support available to ex-armed service personnel in the criminal justice system. The research team spoke to more than 100 ex-service personnel in contact with the justice system and 100 stakeholders to understand their experiences and the barriers to identification and support.

Barriers to identification and uptake of support

Previous academic research as well as research produced by FiMT has attempted to establish the number of ex-service personnel in the criminal justice system (CJS), as well as the reasons they offend.

As of October 2023, the Ministry of Justice estimated that, in England and Wales, approximately 3.6% of the prison population that was asked the identifying question at reception had disclosed that they had previously served in the Armed Forces. In 2019, the Directory of Social Change estimated that 3.1% of Scotland’s prison population had previously served in the Armed Forces.

There is less recent data available on the estimates of ex-service personnel under the supervision of the Probation Service in England and Wales and justice social work (JSW) in Scotland or who are processed by the police in England, Wales and Scotland.

The available data provides a limited picture, only considering ex-service personnel who choose to disclose their service status. The current research was therefore commissioned to help get a better understanding of the numbers of ex-service personnel who are in contact with the justice system by understanding the barriers to identification through the different stages of the CJS, as well as any barriers to uptake of support.

Research methodology for ex-service personnel in the criminal justice system

The research was conducted in two phases:

The first phase, from August 2021 to April 2022, consisted of substantive interviews with 29 key national stakeholders who work with or are involved in policymaking related to ex-service personnel in the CJS.

The second phase of the research consisted of in-depth primary research across eight local sites which included interviews with 104 ex-service personnel in prison and in the community under supervision, as well as 71 professionals working in different parts of the justice system and other local stakeholders.

These sites were:

  • County Durham, Hull, Plymouth, and Staffordshire in England
  • Bridgend and Swansea in Wales
  • Edinburgh and Perth and Kinross in Scotland, with a supplementary prison visit in Stirling

Findings from ex-service personnel research

Our report sets out the detailed findings across the different stages of the justice system. In addition, there are several themes which emerged across multiple stages. These are:

Stakeholders and ex-service personnel interviewed reported a reluctance of ex-service personnel to seek help before, during, and after contact with the justice system. Pride and a sense of self-reliance were often cited as reasons why ex-service personnel were reluctant to ask for help.

Capacity issues were raised by prison staff in England, Scotland, and Wales, and probation staff in England and Wales, impacting their ability to routinely identify and support ex-service personnel. This was exacerbated by limited knowledge of the most appropriate services for ex-service personnel in the justice system.

Those interviewed often stated that the purpose of identification at different stages of the justice process was not clear. This influences the decision to identify as having served in the Armed Forces, as ex-service personnel were not sure why the question was asked, and what implications it may have on their journey through the justice system.

During our research, it emerged that the term ‘veteran’ was not commonly understood to include ex-service personnel with shorter services and/or no combat experience. Many ex-service personnel were not aware that their service history made them eligible to identify as a ‘veteran’ and seek ex-service personnel specific support services.

The current support landscape is complex, with a considerable number of support options in prison and particularly in the community. However, many of the ex-service personnel who participated in this research and stakeholders were not aware of available support. In addition, many ex-service personnel often stated that they were only aware of ex-service personnel specific services after they had contact with the justice system.

Many stakeholders expressed that ex-service personnel may feel shame concerning their offence and may therefore be reluctant to identify themselves as a former member of the Armed Forces. However, it is important to note that very few ex-service personnel we interviewed expressed shame in this way, or that it prevented them from self-identifying or taking up support.

Overall, this research has provided a detailed insight into the experiences of ex-service personnel who encounter the CJS. Ex-service personnel who come into contact with the CJS often have complex needs and this research has attempted to give voice to the issues, concerns and experiences of this group.

Importantly, there are many areas in which improvements can be made to both reduce the risk of offending and reoffending and provide more tailored and stronger support during and following contact with the CJS. We believe that a focused, evidence-based approach to addressing the needs outlined in this research may divert some away from the justice system, and help ensure that others are more likely to be able to access the support they need.

Recommendations to improve the identification of and support for ex-service personnel in the criminal justice system

Our recommendations are informed by the analysis of the evidence collected through this project. To learn more about our recommendations and to read the full report, download your copy below:

Ex-service personnel publications

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To learn more about this research or discuss collaboration opportunities contact our Policy Team