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The truth about the links between military service and crime

This article by Leanne K Simpson, PhD Candidate, School of Psychology | Institute for the Psychology of Elite Performance, Bangor University was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The transition back to civilian life is a challenging period for military personnel – particularly when coupled with one or more of the well-publicised problems faced by veterans, including mental health issues, skills translation and the stigma surrounding military service.

In addition, there are several myths regarding the apparently inevitable transition from military service to a life of crime. These are, at best, unhelpful.

Recent government research estimates that military veterans make up 3.5% of the UK prison population. Although veterans are less likely than the general population to offend, they are more likely to be in prison for violent or sexual offences, and they make up the largest single occupational group in prison. However, this one dimensional statistic doesn’t consider the internal and external factors that are associated with offending. Instead, there seems to be a general, unchallenged assumption that it is a result of their military service.

The military offers many benefits – stability, education, monetary incentives – for individuals that may not have achieved otherwise. Research has shown that those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are most likely to enlist in a bid to escape poverty, unstable home lives and antisocial peers; both individually and collectively these factors have also been found to boost the odds of criminal involvement.

Building on this, some criminologists claim military service is a positive turning point in an individual’s life course, acting as a “settling influence” and leading to criminal desistance. For some, however, serving in the military may have simply delayed or postponed their criminal activities, temporarily keeping them on the straight and narrow.

What defines a veteran?

The term “veteran” is a powerful title and one to be proud of – but it can also pigeonhole statistics and distort the facts. Veteran status is determined differently from country to country. Some require a minimum period of service, as is the case in the US, or operational service, such as in Australia.

The UK has one of the most inclusive definitions in the world, allowing individuals to claim veteran status on the basis of one day’s paid service. This all-encompassing definition allows individuals that may have left or been discharged within days of enrolling in basic training to claim veteran status. Considering this, can individuals who have never completed training claim that their offending is directly linked to their service?

Unfortunately, there will always be a number of individuals that misrepresent the extent or even the existence of their service. False claims and the embellishment of service experience undoubtedly distort the problem, and veteran crime statistics are used unfairly as evidence of veteran offending.

I spoke to David Henretty, a former Army officer who is now regional manager for Catch22 prison resettlement services. Mr Henretty said that he had worked with a cohort of offenders, “who have talked up their service credentials as a way of justifying and excusing their behaviours – even though there is clear and concise evidence to disprove their offending was as a result of their service”.

There are genuine cases of veterans in the criminal justice system who are receiving help and assistance to turn their back on this dark period of their lives. Positively, it has been reported that veterans in custody have lower levels of need in several areas – they are, for example, less likely to report receiving treatment for drug misuse while in custody compared to those who had no military background. Most veterans adapt to their new surroundings quickly, finding familiarity in the structured and hierarchical environment.

Needs and support

Unfortunately, there is limited evidence on the specific needs and experiences of veterans in the criminal justice system. Though some headway has been made, data on the contributions of pre-service adversity, military experiences, and post-service life are needed to help inform service providers.

In March 2016, the British Ministry of Defence announced that £4.6m is to be invested to provide complete support to veterans in the criminal justice system, with the aim of reducing re-offending by improving access to housing, employment opportunities and social skills.

At present, awareness, assessments and interventions aimed at the veteran prison community are developing with dedicated prison officers (commonly veterans themselves) and resettlement case managers who are tasked with identifying and supporting these individuals. Assistance from partner agencies and third sector organisations (e.g., armed forces charity SSAFA) is also gaining traction with appropriate structured support being rolled out across the prison estate.

While every veteran in custody is a tragic event and evidence of a missed opportunity to intervene at an earlier stage, it is important to remember that just because someone has served, it does not mean that their criminal activities are related to their service.

As always, there is room for improvements and commendable efforts are being made to help those veterans who find themselves drawn to a life of crime post-service. In the meantime, we need to break the wider misconception that all veteran criminal behaviour is directly attributed to military service.

What makes the world’s best rugby players?

In this research project, funded by the Rugby Football Union (RFU), Prof Lew Hardy, Dr Ross Roberts, Dr Matt Barlow and PhD student Alex Hennessy will investigate the critical factors which influence the development of super-elite rugby players, leading them to become amongst the best players in the World.
The research aims to identify the psycho-social factors which have a significant impact on the development of this select group of players and which set them apart from other elite rugby players.

The study is based on the findings obtained from the recent Great British Medallist study, funded by UK sport, which examined the factors differentiating between elite athletes and ‘super-elite’ multi-gold medal winning athletes.

In addition, the research will also look at the influence of practice and training histories on the development of the World’s best rugby players, and will build on current research, being carried out with the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), into the performance of ‘super-elite’ International level cricketers.
The findings from this study will be used to inform development pathways within the RFU and help to identify players, early in the development pathway, who have a high probability of being successful at International level.  

Knowledge Transfer with Business

Over the past few months IPEP co-directors Dr Ross Roberts and Dr Stuart Beattie along with PhD student Leanne Simpson have been working closely with Metris Leadership, a leadership and business consultancy company run by ex-military and special forces soldiers.

Metris are particularly interested in understanding how to help their clients develop mental toughness and robustness and maintain high performance under pressure and contacted IPEP based on its expertise in this area within high level sport and the military. This knowledge transfer collaboration is helping Metris to further understand the role that performance psychology can play in business and how individuals can maintain performance under stress, whilst helping IPEP to develop research opportunities within business and the special forces.

New PhD students

Alexandra MacGregor completed both her BSc and MSc studies at the school, and has continued on in the department to study for a PhD with Dr. Tim Woodman and Prof. Lew Hardy, supported by a Knowledge Economy Skills Scholarship (KESS). Her PhD is a collaborative research project funded by the European Social Fund. She will be working closely with a local outdoor activities provider, Surf-Lines in Llanberis, over the course of her PhD, with the aim of applying the research to a business context

Chin Wei Ong has recently joined the school on a 125 anniversary scholarship to complete his PhD with Dr Ross Roberts, Dr Calum Arthur and Dr Tim Woodman. Chin Wei is an ex-Msc student from SSHES who has spent the past few years working as a full time sport psychologist in the Singapore Sports School providing psychological support to high level junior athletes

Caoimhe Martin completed her MSc in Sport Psychology (BPS) at SSHES, Bangor University and has continued on in department on a 125 anniversary scholarship to study for a PhD with Dr. David Markland and Dr. James Hardy.

Ross Roberts

Ross was interviewed on the BBC Radio Wales Jamie and Louise radio programme when it came live from the University in October. More...

Ross ran a BASES workshop at the start of November called "Understanding your client". This was for people on the BASES SE scheme to attend and present and reflect about recent client work they had undertaken, and discuss any successes/challenges that had occurred along the way.

Samantha McElligott

As part of the KESS PhD exploring the impact of Transformational Leadership in the youth expedition context, I led two overseas Expeditions this year for Outlook Expeditions (the KESS Company Partner).  The first allowed me to pilot questionnaires for data collection, while leading a great group of Year 9 students on an adventure through the mountains, seas and ancient sights of Jordan.  In the summer, I led a challenging expedition to Mongolia and China with a fantastic group of Year 12 and 13 students.  As well as being able to collect data in the field, we participated in a four day horse trek through the Mongolian Steppe, Trekked in the remote Western Mountains and Plains, and helped to build a shelter and renovate a day care centre for local children in the Capital, UlanBataar.  To round the trip off, we took the overnight train to Beijing to take in the history and culture of this diverse city, including, of course, the Great Wall.  The expeditions were a great opportunity to apply Transformational Leadership theory, and were incredibly rewarding, if not a little exhausting at times!  We managed to yield a large amount of data, which made the experiences all the more worthwhile.

Rosie Poynor

Rosie, a SSHES PhD Student, was invited to give a presentation on concentration within racing as part of the Welsh Athletics National Endurance Seminar Day, in partnership with ?Run Wales? on the 1st October 2011 at Rhayader, Mid Wales.

Tim Woodman

Dr. Tim Woodman has been involved in discussions with the AU in which the president of the AU, Danielle Giles commented on how much Bangor University Sports Clubs are benefitting from both the physiological and psychological support and development provided to teams by Sport Science MSc students through the supervised experience module. It is hoped that this help and support will continue to develop and strengthen teams as well as providing students with applied work experience in a sporting context.

James Bell

James Bell will be travelling with the England U-19 cricket team as part of their winter training camp to Potchefstroom, South Africa. This is a crucial part of the U-19's preparation for next year's World Cup in Brisbane, Australia. The aim of the camp is to provide players with experience of fast bouncy pitches like they will face in Australia and there will be a specific focus on developing game plans against spin bowling. James will be working with the players on their mental preparation strategies and working with the coaches to create a high performance environment.

James Hardy

Human Kinetics highlighted one of James’ papers on self-talk as a press release More..

IPEP working with UKSport

Prof Lew Hardy and Dr Tim Woodman (IPEP) are working with UK Sport, the UK’s High Performance Sports Agency on a project that will increase the likelihood of medal success for British athletes in Rio 2016 and beyond. The project will provide an in-depth study into the career development of Olympic athletes, from childhood to podium, offering an insight into a number of different factors that may have affected their performance on the world stage.