Concerns about veterans and the criminal justice system

17 December 2019 By Kellie Toole and Elaine Waddell
Criminal justice system

Organisations that work with men and women who have served in the Australian military have been concerned for some years that high numbers of ex-service men have contact with the criminal justice system, including spending time in prison, write Kellie Toole and Elaine Waddell.

Australian police, courts and prisons have not systematically collected data on military status, and so it has never been possible to determine the numbers of ex-service men and women who are in prison, or if they are over-represented compared to the general population.

In November 2018, South Australia’s Department for Correctional Services undertook the first known Australian audit of local prisons to identify how many ex-service men and women were part of the prison population. No ex-service women were identified, but 93 men were confirmed as having served in the Australian Defence Force (ADF), and this number equates to service men being imprisoned at twice the rate of the general population.

We have interviewed 13 ex-service men who are still in prison, or who have been released from prison within the last two years, to try and understand the connection between military service and criminal offending.


The men we have spoken to have been convicted of manslaughter, attempted rape, domestic violence offences, drug offences, assaults, armed robbery, property damage, and serious driving offences, and while they have varied life and military experiences, every one of them has at least one mental illness.

Nine of the men, including all five who deployed on combat or peacekeeping missions, have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. Across the 13 men there were also diagnoses of multiple personality disorder, anti-social personality disorder, bipolar, depression, panic disorder, suicidal attempts and ideation, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, and alcohol and other drug disorders.

It is easy to conclude that military service causes mental health issues that leave ex-service men vulnerable to the risk factors for criminal offending. However, some of the men developed mental health issues from childhood trauma caused by events such as the sudden death of siblings or parents, violence by a parent or step-parent, multiple foster homes, parents with mental health and substance abuse issues, sexual abuse, and parental abandonment.

None of the men received treatment or counselling when they were children, some had traumatic experiences in the military, and all left the military suddenly
and without ongoing support.

One man explained the interplay of childhood, service, and discharge on mental health, when he told us that:

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"I ended up getting multiple personality disorder, short-term memory loss due to alcohol substance abuse… severe depression. Personally I reckon the PTSD started when I lost my two brothers. Then going through the army and then coming out. No counselling or support. None. Nothing at all."

The combined trauma manifests differently for different men. Some reported an almost total emotional shutdown.

One told us:

"I don’t know what traumatised is. I used to look in the mirror and just practice crying, just to see if I was doing it right."

Another man explained the total opposite response and the inability to contain emotions:

"I’d just become a spectator... Everything goes black for a second and that’s when I lose control of actually who I am. It’s kind of like I'm here and I can watch what I'm doing."

The ADF is not a typical employer, and the men we spoke to found its all-consuming nature provided structure, purpose, comradeship and adventure. However, service can exact a heavy price, especially from those who deploy.

The ADF must assess the mental state of every person who seeks to join, and monitor the mental state of every person who serves.

The current neglect of mental health issues results in some sections of the ex-service community being vulnerable to not just imprisonment, but homelessness, breakdown of personal relationships, substance abuse, mental health issues and suicide.

Our research is ongoing and we invite men or women who are in prison or have been released from prison in the last two years, and have either served in the ADF or have a mother, father or partner who has served, to contact us.

By Kellie Toole and Elaine Waddell, Adelaide Law School, Research Unit on Military Law and Ethics

Concerns about veterans and the criminal justice system
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