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Ex-Service personnel and the Justice System: Stakeholder considerations of recent research and policy summaries

On 28th November 2023, the FiMT Research Centre published the first in its series of research and policy summaries. This first set of summaries (available here: Research and Policy), focuses on ex-Service personnel and the justice system (JS), providing a comprehensive and robust synthesis of existing research evidence together with current policy and practice. They are an invaluable resource for the Armed Forces policy, practice, and research sectors, offering examples of best practice as well as highlighting current gaps in understanding and service provision. In so doing, they represent an accessible and robust reference point to guide future policy, decision-making, and research planning to support ex-Service personnel and their families.

To mark the summaries’ release, a roundtable event was hosted in London which brought together leading stakeholders committed to providing services to, creating policy for, and/or conducting research with ex-Service personnel involved in the JS and their families. A presentation from the summaries’ lead author, Dr Ed Bryan, provided an overview of the key findings and resulting recommendations before the floor was opened for a lively discussion amongst those in attendance. This was intended to ensure that the summaries reflect the knowledge and experiences of those working with this specific group of Veterans as well as provide a forum in which to reflect on possible responses to some of the recommendations made.

The roundtable attendees were in broad agreement with the content and recommendations of the summaries, thereby confirming both their accuracy and validity with respect to assisting future research and practice. The discussion also expanded on a number of key areas addressed in the summaries to add further context for possible recommendations, solutions, and actions.  

A key finding which was echoed by several attendees concerned the lack of definitive data on the prevalence of ex-Service personnel involved in the JS. Not only are existing estimates of the number of ex-Service personnel serving prison sentences inconsistent across different sources – these figures only address a single juncture of the JS. The prevalence of ex-Service personnel in police custody or legal settings, under probation, or fulfilling community service orders for the most part remains unknown. The reasons for this lack of clarity are multifaceted, including the fact that existing research has tended to be restricted to specific geographical regions (e.g., England and Wales) and/or stages of the JS. A further limiting factor is the present lack of consensus regarding the most appropriate methodological approach, with some studies relying on the self-reporting of ex-Service personnel status by those in the JS and others utilising data linkage between government-held and primary research data.

Those participating in the roundtable discussion went on to share how the current uncertainty surrounding the number of ex-Service personnel involved in the JS renders their work challenging, especially with respect to determining the potential support needs of this cohort. There was a notable inconsistency of opinion regarding the accuracy of the available data, with some believing the prevalence is higher than reported and others believing it is more likely to be lower. Greater transparency with respect to the limitations of existing data was highlighted as an important future requirement as this would allow stakeholders to draw inferences and make informed decisions within their bounds.

A known challenge to establishing the prevalence of ex-Service personnel within the JS is the need for individuals to disclose their ex-Service personnel status upon request. Both the manner and at what point this question is asked have been identified as key determinants of accurate data recording, with several roundtable participants proposing that it should be asked at several different points of contact across the JS, including when individuals move between prisons. Ensuring the question is framed as ‘Have you ever served in the UK Armed Forces?’ rather than ‘Are you a Veteran?’ was also suggested to mitigate against many ex-Service personnel not identifying with the term ‘Veteran’. Additionally, the mandating and regional assignment of Veterans in Custody Support Officers (VISCOs) across prisons in England and Wales were suggested as likely to aid more consistent reporting of ex-Service status.

Some of the roundtable participants identified shame as a further potential barrier to ex-Service personnel disclosing their Armed Forces background and engaging with support services. Yet others proposed that a level of caution should be exercised when considering this point. Importantly, it was suggested that building of trust between staff and ex-Service personnel involved in the JS was far more significant in determining whether an individual would disclose their military background and engage with available support.

Forces in Mind Trust commissioned research to look specifically at the issue of identification of ex-Service personnel in the JS, as well as to examine barriers to the uptake of support. Conducted by Nacro, the accompanying report is due for release in Spring 2024 and anticipated to include recommendations for how to address the challenges of identification and improve support uptake more widely.

The summary of existing research detailed the various risk factors and vulnerabilities which have been identified as potentially increasing the likelihood of ex-Service personnel becoming involved in the JS. These include pre-Service anti-social behaviour, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), military deployment, military cultures of violence and alcohol consumption, short Service length, alongside experiencing mental health difficulties and anger. During the accompanying roundtable discussion, it was noted that these contributing factors neither operate in isolation nor are they absolutely determining. While ACEs may be a risk factor, for example, not all those with ACEs go on to offend. A number of participants therefore went on to propose that, rather than looking to isolate specific groups of ex-Service personnel based on the factors listed above, desistence from criminal behaviour may be more effectively nurtured through more generalised initiatives which seek to facilitate a smooth military-to-civilian transition. Enhancing engagement with family and social networks was raised as a potentially highly effective protective practice, with the participants also acknowledging that further research is needed to explore how this may be facilitated in practice.

Considering the demographic profile of ex-Service personnel in the JS, existing evidence indicates members of this cohort are overwhelmingly male, as well as older than average and more likely to be serving longer sentences than the wider JS population. And yet, it was observed by the roundtable participants that limited research has compared the pathways, risk factors, and JS experiences of equivalent ex-Service and non-ex-Service personnel groupings thus far. Through performing such comparative studies in the future, the participants noted that greater light may be shed on how the routes to offending, experiences of the JS, and transition out of the JS differ (if at all) between those who have and have not previously served in the Armed Forces.

The summaries highlight the currently limited understanding of the ways in which minoritised ex-Service personnel experience the JS, including ex-Servicewomen, minoritised ethnicity ex-Service personnel, and members of LGBT+ community. This was reflected in the roundtable discussion, which featured a statement of a unanimous agreement that greater research is needed to understand support needs of these potentially vulnerable groups. Indeed, one participant shared how, to their knowledge, women were often more likely to receive a hospital order than a prison sentence – an outcome which has thus far received limited critical attention and must be considered in the potential development of women specific policy and/or support.

Dr Emma Murray (Liverpool John Moores University) shared that she is currently supervising a doctoral research project which focuses specifically on ex-Servicewomen in the JS. This study, conducted by Hilary Currin, is using a life course narrative interview approach to examine the experiences of ex-Servicewomen involved in the JS. The outcomes of this research are expected late summer 2024.

With respect to current policy and support,  the summaries highlight that due to the devolved responsibility for service provision across the UK’s constituent nations, police forces, and custodial establishments, there is no UK-wide approach to assisting ex-Service personnel involved in the JS. Furthermore, while numerous support initiatives have been put in place, evaluations of existing services are limited. This is likely due to their highly localised scope and limited resource, together with the challenges securing appropriate funding to conduct robust evaluations. Further efforts are therefore needed to chart and assess the available services in a comprehensive manner.

It was raised on several occasions during the roundtable discussion that, given the potential contribution of Service-related factors to ex-Service personnel’s involvement in the JS, the Armed Forces Covenant might be leveraged and even extended to include this potentially disadvantaged Veteran cohort. Relatedly, a number of participants proposed the Armed Forces Covenant Trust could be a good source of funding to address some of the evidence gaps identified, especially those relating to particular ‘at risk’ sub-groups, with a proposal for a bigger study that would enable analysis at the sub-group level.

A final and vital point made both in the summaries and during the discussions was the ‘untold story’ of the families of JS connected ex-Service personnel. In particular, the observation was made that we currently know very little about the experiences of this group and their associated support needs – topics which were considered to be a priority for research, policy, and practice.

We would like to thank all the stakeholders who gave their time, expertise, and support to the production of the summaries and those who attended the launch event.

The FiMT Research Centre team have now started work on the next set of summaries focused on post-Service employment both among ex-Service personnel and their families. To keep up to date with requests for information and calls for evidence, please sign up to our mailing list (at the bottom of each page of our website), and follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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