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Understanding the lives of veterans in the justice system

image of Phil Mulvey

Phil Mulvey

Illinois State University’s Phil Mulvey has received a nearly $100,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) to explore the daily lives of veterans who enter the criminal justice system.

Research has shown that military veterans reintegrating into civilian society are at increased risk for relationship troubles, mental health crises, and substance abuse as well as an increased propensity for violence. Those factors may lead to minor brushes with the law due to various anti-social behaviors, or to imprisonment for serious crimes.

Mulvey, an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice Sciences, is working to find out how day-to-day life experiences can impact anti-social or criminal behavior in veterans. He is in the early stages of a study examining the life experiences of veterans who are currently on probation for various offenses. He hopes his research will help lead to improved treatment and corrections services. The two-year study is supported by the NIJ’s Early Career Scholar program.

“I really want to get a sense of what an average day is like for veterans who are on probation and living in their home communities,” said Mulvey. “I’ll ask them about their military experience and their transition back to civilian life. I’m also hoping to gain some insight into how the experiences may be different for male and female veterans.”

Currently conducting a small-scale pilot study of veterans on probation in McLean County, Mulvey is now expanding the scope to include veterans in the criminal justice system in other counties across Illinois. In recent months he has been in contact with probation agencies across the state to recruit individuals willing to share their stories.

Face-to-face interviews will be conducted with the veterans, and some will be asked to complete surveys to record daily activities, emotions, and general state of mind. “I’ll actually be using old-fashioned pagers to contact individuals at random times throughout the day and week,” said Mulvey. “They’ll be asked to record what they’re doing at the time, who they’re with, what they’re thinking about, and how they feel.”

Drawing on his own experience as a counselor, Mulvey approaches the study with an open mind. He is careful to avoid assuming there is an automatic link between military service and increased incidents of anti-social or criminal behavior in society. “This research is exploratory and totally based on the veterans’ daily experiences,” he said. “I am hoping that through this I’ll gain a better understanding of how day-to-day activities, relationships, and social settings influence both positive and negative behaviors.”

As part of the study, Mulvey is also hoping to interview veterans’ family members or other loved ones to learn more about the influence of social networks. Family members would be asked their perspective on the veterans’ experiences and how they impact interpersonal and family relationships and overall mental health.

The information gathered during the study could eventually help to shape policies and practices for dealing with veterans in the criminal justice system. “The project has the potential to shape criminal justice and social policy by better understanding how life-course transitions and military service impact individuals’ behavior,” said Mulvey. “It will also shed light on the day-to-day psychological behavior and familial relationships for this group of offenders. I’d like to see that lead to improvements in treatment and corrections services for veterans.”

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