Federal Offenders Who Served in the Armed Forces

Overview

(Published October 28, 2021)  The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that there are more than 19 million Americans who are veterans. Over 10,000 veteran offenders were in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons at the end of 2019, accounting for almost six percent of all BOP inmates.

This report provides an analysis of the relatively small number of veterans each year who are sentenced for a federal felony or Class A misdemeanor offense, most often committed well after they left military service. In particular, the report examines federal offenders with prior military service who were sentenced in fiscal year 2019, the crimes they committed, and an assessment of whether that prior service was given special consideration at sentencing.

Key Findings

  • In fiscal year 2019, 4.4 percent of all U.S. citizens sentenced in the Federal courts for a felony or Class A misdemeanor had served in the military. For these offenders, the average length of time between separation from the military and the sentence for the federal offense was 23 years.
  • The most common crime type committed by both veteran offenders and citizen offenders overall was drug trafficking (25.0% and 37.6%, respectively). Veteran offenders, however, committed child pornography offenses more than four times as often as citizen offenders overall, 11.6 percent compared to 2.7 percent, and sex abuse offenses more than twice as often, 6.7 percent compared to 2.4 percent.
  • The sentences imposed on veteran offenders and citizen offenders overall were similar in terms of type of sentence imposed and average sentence imposed. For veteran offenders, 79.2 percent received a sentence of imprisonment compared to 83.9 percent of all citizen offenders, and the average sentence for veteran offenders was 64 months compared to 62 months for all citizen offenders.
  • Although veteran offenders were more likely to be sentenced below the applicable guideline range (38.9% received a downward variance compared to 31.8% of all citizen offenders), military service does not appear to have a significant influence on the sentences imposed. The court specifically cited an offender’s military service as a reason for the sentence imposed in only 15.0 percent of cases involving veteran offenders.
  • When the court did cite an offender’s military service as a reason for the sentence, it was almost always for service that the military had characterized as honorable.
  • Only two other offender characteristics were correlated with sentences where a court cited the offender’s military service as a reason. Two-thirds (66.9%) of the offenders whose military service was cited by the court indicated that they had some history of mental health problems, compared to 51.1 percent for veteran offenders generally. Also, more than half (54.8%) of the offenders whose service was cited by the court had served in a combat zone, compared to 22.6 percent for all veteran offenders.